Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything
is that most unusual of films, the kind that actually gets better as you’re watching it. Directed by James Marsh,  the film is the story of the marriage of physicist Stephen Hawking (an impressively committed Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones). The two meet in 1963 at Cambridge, where Stephen is a talented but directionless doctoral candidate and Jane is pursuing a Ph.D. in poetry. If you’re hoping to learn something about Hawking’s scientific work then  The Theory of Everything will probably disappoint you. There is talk of time and black holes, but the first section of the film feels rushed as Stephen meets Jane, makes his first breakthrough, and is diagnosed with the motor neuron disease that will define his life from the neck down. Once he receives his diagnosis both Stephen and his father (Simon McBurney) gently warn Jane from becoming too attached, but she is undaunted and becomes both a devoted caregiver and the mother of Stephen’s three children.

It was at about this point that I began to worry about The Theory of Everything. Stephen seemed to have been reduced to his disability, and I feared I was about to watch a film in which a Great Man skipped from strength to strength professionally while his illness failed to derail his home life only on account of an unendingly supportive wife. Then Anthony McCarten’s script (based on Jane Hawking’s memoir) changes course. Stephen is playing with his children in the living room while Jane does her own academic work in the kitchen. She can’t concentrate because of the noise, and Felicity Jones plays the moment with such a complicated brew of emotions that I actually leaned closer to the screen. The Theory of Everything tells Jane’s story too, and despite a impressively soulful performance from Eddie Redmayne it must be said that Felicity Jones is the reason to see it. This is the story of a modern marriage, and the spikiness and sensuality of Jones’s performance saves a movie that had threatened to become too polite. The story is also given heat by the arrival of a supportive neighbor named Jonathan (Charlie Cox) who introduces some erotic complication into the Hawkings’ marriage.

If only Marsh and McCarten had treated Stephen Hawking as more than a symbol of the indomitable human spirit. Throughout the film the fact that Hawking is doing something is more remarkable than what he actually does. Marsh even cuts away from a physically deteriorating Hawking explaining a key advance in his work to hear a friend (Harry Lloyd) explaining the same thing to colleagues in a pub. Late in the film - after A Brief History of Time makes Hawking a celebrity - there’s a public appearance at which Hawking is reduced to a dispenser of aphorisms about human possibility. While The Theory of Everything contains moments of real honesty and connection it also can’t quite grapple with a man the size of Stephen Hawking, and it’s there that the film can’t quite live up to its title.

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