Source: National Post
Author: Katherine Monk
There are no significant revelations, but maybe that’s the beauty of James Marsh’s biopic about Stephen Hawking: The Theory of Everything isn’t looking for answers to the universe.
A slow, steady study of humanity as reflected through two very different souls, this adaptation of Jane Hawking’s memoirs takes us from the very beginning of a love affair to the final nails in a coffin of promises, and in so doing, charts the second law of thermodynamics through emotional space. All things tend to entropy; the disorder of a given system increases over time; there is less energy available to do work — these are realities that govern the laws of physics, but as physical bodies, they also govern our lives.
Marsh, the Oscar-winning director of Man on Wire and Project Nim, is the kind of filmmaker who understands every layer of the material, and so it’s not all that surprising to see him use the abstract force of love to help us understand the underlying narrative arc, and its inevitable descent into chaos.
Opening against the storybook landscape of Oxford, where young Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his affable, intellectual family are looking to make a dent in the world for the better, we get a taste of the rigid academic environment that will eventually strengthen Hawking’s rebellious nature. Every one of his professors can see he’s a bright young man with a profound need to question established laws, and so Stephen gets a lot of support. He finds the necessary role models, he joins the rowing team and he even meets a pretty young woman named Jane (Felicity Jones).
It’s a bit of an awkward courtship but we’re entirely there for both of them because they seem incredibly sweet and authentic. Moreover, Marsh is busy playing fairy godmother behind the scenes, ensuring we are seduced by their romance as it unfolds beneath a sky filled with computer-generated stars. Because Redmayne and Jones are both attractive, and because every frame of this movie feels decidedly upscale, it’s an easy surrender. Our curiosity about their love affair sucks us into their solar system, where we’re forced to bear witness to the eventual collapse as the whole thing goes supernova.
Jane remains the loyal wife when Stephen is diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disorder. She single-handedly takes care of their children and struggles to heave Stephen’s heavy body around the house. Bitter about his cruel disease, Stephen also tends to get angry, but we don’t see much of Hawking’s rage. It’s too unattractive and bleeds sympathy for his character in seconds, so Redmayne and Marsh keep Hawking’s genius persona in the safe zone and never push it into the red.
Yet, every so often, we can feel the outline of a darker force rising beneath the soft white blankets of denial. We can feel the growing distance between them, and this is where Marsh manufactures the most tension. Jane finds a much-needed source of support in the local choirmaster, Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), while Stephen finds solace and a few sexy winks with his new nurse and speech trainer, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake).
Once the whole romance starts to swirl, it’s unstoppable, and Marsh does a lovely job of choosing the smaller scenes to make us feel the loss of something larger. In so many ways, The Theory of Everything feels like the prettier, but slightly dumber sister of A Beautiful Mind because it doesn’t attempt to go as deep or as dark in its bid to understand genius.
In fact, Hawking’s great mind probably the least developed character in the whole movie. His love and enthusiasm for physics is never fully realized as a concept, let alone a character trait, because Marsh knows theoretical physics can’t be poured into a thimble of movie plot and make any kind of sense.
He is right to focus on the emotional milky ways and the psychological space-time rifts because in the end, we are all part of the same system and subject to the same invisible laws. And like any great scientist, Marsh observes, looking for the small details that suggest a larger source of meaning, and in his wondrously engaging equation, the only answer is love.