Movie Review: The Theory of Everything (2014)- A Formulaic Biopic Structure is Fortunately Lifted by Immaculate Performance, Confident Direction, and its Reflection on an Unequal Marriage

theoryofeverythingIt’s quite a coincidental occurrence of random Universal existence that Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a space epic that confidentially explores theoretical physics postured in part by cosmologist Stephen Hawking, is released the same weekend as James Marsh’s Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. Really the two films couldn’t be any different from the other as Nolan’s film resembles the attributes of the brain as it tackles large conceptual orchestrations of science with forced emotionality while Marsh’s admirable biopic resembles the heart as it contains sincere sentiment in a sweeping unconventional romance but very little exploration into the depth of scientific inquiry. Based on the memoir “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” written by Hawking’s first wife Jane Wilde, The Theory of Everything replaces historical accuracy, the details of the scientific method, and heroic motivation for a sincere yet partially unsatisfying reflection on the hardships, sacrifices, and complexities of marriage. In showcasing the development of Stephen and Jane’s relationship from collegiate infatuation to the endurance of love the film admirably attempts to put love in the center of our cosmic plight that might be part of a meaningful equation that comprises an actual theory of everything within our tangible existence. It’s just unfortunate that a documentarian such as Marsh, who has explored in detail both a subject of unconventional ambition in Man on Wire and the linguistics of scientific exploration in Project Nim, wasn’t able to fully utilize this background in factual reality and apply it to a rather banal biopic script that unfolds almost too conveniently. But what Marsh’s biopic lacks in exploring the renowned physicist and pop-culture icon’s depth it makes up for in delightful romance charm all thanks to Marsh’s refined sense of direction, a thematic moving score, and a magical chemistry between the two leads Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. Those that have experienced numerous trivial biopics from the past might not find much uniqueness here in The Theory of Everything, but there certainly is enough confidence in execution, charm in performance, and a reflection on unequal partnerships that makes it worth more than its chosen formula.

If there’s an overarching theme to The Theory of Everything it is undoubtedly the concept of time, whether it’s the mortal constraints of our bodies against time, the relationship attrition that builds over time, or the conceptual theories that evolve and change about time. The deep focus of Anthony McCarten’s adaptation of Jane Wilde’s book is of course on Stephen and Jane’s relationship as it becomes their own brief history of time where their marital vows of “death do us part” are put to the greater test. The film opens with Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) as a boisterous jokester of a student at Cambridge University in the early 60s riding a bicycle showing us the vibrant personality that eventually gets contained within his own body once he begins his physical degradation due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease to those who have seen Pride of the Yankees. Before he receives this fateful diagnosis this brilliant procrastiating atheist meets a passionate European literature studying Christian named Jane Wilde at a party in what comes to be their own relationship equivalent Big Bang marking their beginning. But relationships, just like the Universe, are complicated and everchanging, especially in the concept that love isn’t necessarily contained to one person nor does it have principles that adhere to logic. McCarten’s script gracefully handles Hawking’s dilapidation as well as Jane becoming the exceptionally strong pillar of support that begins to crack from exhaustion as she seeks satisfaction from a relationship that requires her to give more love than she is able to receive in equal standing. However, beyond the charming romance there’s very little substance to be found within the formulaic biopic structure that McCarten has adopted as the inspirtation of Stephen is never ventured, the details of his discoveries are simplified to overlydramatic scenes, and the potential for intellectual banter on god, the universe, and love remain uninspired. It’s as if The Theory of Everything has all the sweeping dramatic romance that wasn’t part of Errol Morris’s documentary A Brief History of Time which handles Hawking’s life with intellectual fervor that includes an inventive time manipulation structure and a greater understanding towards the thinking of the great cosmologist. Of course a film can’t possess all aspects of a subject as complex as Hawking and turning the emphasis towards his romance with Jane brings numerous charming moments but the mystery of Hawking and his genius still remains elusive.


Realigning the emphasis on Hawking’s relationship might not have the intellectual heftyness or conceptual poeticism that we know can be associated with the subject of such scholarly genius but simplification doesn’t always equal a diminution of analysis. The film utilizes our current perception of the Stephen Hawking known to us now against us as it exposes his early life, love, and illness with relatable detail thanks mostly to the polished direction of James Marsh who lifts many of the potentially hackneyed scenes with lush romanticism that ignites nothing more than a smile as gleaming as Stephen Hawking’s permanent one. Marsh might not have utilized his documentary idealism in highlighting a completely factual account of his subject, but perhaps he wanted to be rid of the weighty chains of objectivism so he could confidently give life to a more lighthearted sensationalist view on an unconventional patnership. Without Marsh’s keen visual sensibilities and control of dramatic material the film’s more overly saccharine moments would have taken the film to a level of triviality that is practically unbearable. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme doesn’t conform to any style but always has a visceral connection to image as evidenced with the Australian western The Proposition and the holocaust film The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas. Here his visual talents slant towards the traditional yet each image is filled with emotional clarity and fascinating detail, whether it’s capturing the quixotic lighting of a bridge dance between Stephen and Jane or giving a golden tint to the hallways of royalty when Stephen meets the Queen of England. The extensively beautiful cinematography coupled with Johan Johannson’s repeating thematic score drive home a convincing emotional overtone to the underlying charm to the relationship on the screen. These uses of technical elements aide The Theory of Everything from being undercut by dramatic cheats, including manipulative fade outs in dialogue to supposedly enhance histrionic effect or to montages to cover more time such as a forcibly grainy home-movie style wedding sequence. Overall it’s a combination of Marsh’s confidence in storytelling combined with an undeniable chemistry between two leads that just happen to give two astonishing individual performances that completely distract you from any melodramatic flaws.

Undoubtedly there’s a layer of complexity to the performances that Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones give both as Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde respectively mostly because they possess a control of themselves and a compatability with each other. Eddie Redmayne hasn’t had an extensive career in film, having only been recognizable in affable form in My Week with Marilyn and as one of the better features of Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, but clearly his confidence in tackling this utterly physical and emotively fixated role is rooted in his vast experience in the theater. His breakdown in physicality is in itself an astonishing transformitive performance on the level of Daniel Day-Lewis in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot, and yet there’s intense emotionality located deep in his modlably expressive eyes. Because Redmayne gives us an incredible foundation in character personality as the awkwardly sociable and procrastinating genius at Cambridge he maintains that sense of dry humor through minimalist gestures and portrays emotion with his eyes alone. On equal standing with Redmayne is the great Felicity Jones who might have been outperformed by such a display of transformation and yet she stays on a subtle footing that matches Redmayne with graceful clarity. Jones also uses our perception of her petite beauty and almost frail attributes against us as she gives Jane a maturing confidence and strength that convinces us of her place in their dramatic and fictional relationship. Together they underline the film’s intention of displaying a romantic yet exeedingly difficult marriage to sustain as their partnership ebbs and flows between the struggles of interdependence, antipathy, and cooperation. It’s quite possible that the conventionality of the script combined with scenes of complete biopic cliché could have lost itself without the phenomenal performances keeping it guided in convincing execution.


Science, as it is with art, seems to be an elusive concept in the realm of film since scientific intuition as well as creative inspiration are exeedinly difficult to portray on the big screen in a perceptible or creative demonstration. In an ideal world of cinematic creativity a Stephen Hawking biopic would not only contain a layer of emotionality between his formidable spouse(s), but also give us an exploration into his mind’s innerworkings as Hawking himself as done in layman’s terms numerous times within his writings. Because Hawking himself was a master innovator against prescribed ways of thinking it’s unfortunate that a biopic that revolves around him, his marriage, or his genius would subscribe to such a conventional presentation. But not every film can be as inventive as Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and sometimes a film should be praised alone for how well it executes its intentions. The Theory of Everything might adopt a formulaic presentation but its twist in subject from Hawking alone to the woman who became a pillar of strength in his life makes it an intriguing experience full of charm, beauty, and genuine struggle. James Marsh gives a confident direction to an otherwise predictable script allowing for the sincerity of performance, the beauty of image, and the careful pacing of a film to create an enlightening if not fully satisfying experience. Though the subject and genius of Stephen Hawking remains elusive the reflection on the difficulties of a marriage challenged by unevenness in intellect, physicality, and fulfillment is certainly poignant and effective.

Grade: B

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