A look at the relationship between the famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife.
Year 3, Film #35
THE GOOD: Even the world’s greatest living mind lives in the same world we do and deals with life struggles that we all face. This is the heart of The Theory of Everything, a film that looks at the life of Stephen Hawking (portrayed by Eddie Redmayne) and the relationship with his wife Jane (portrayed by Felicity Jones). Hawking deals with motor neuron disease (similar to ALS) and he’s also a genius who’s theories about black holes and the universe as a whole have pervaded through society’s consciousness, but when you take all that stuff away, Hawking is just another person like the rest of us. And seeing this love story unfold makes you think about how connected we all are.
The film starts in the early 1960s, before Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease. You see him attending a party, as college students are wont to do, and catches the attention of Jane. First scene, right off the bat, and what struck me the most was how nervous Hawking was talking to Jane. They eventually break away from the crowd and talk with each other for hours on end before it’s time to part for the night. Stephen doesn’t call Jane, for what appears to be weeks, and the next time he sees her, Stephen’s hands begin to shake and he zones out for a bit before finally asking her to a game of croquet only to realize she’s with another man.
In this first sequence you see the true heart of the film and why I find it so charming. From all that comes next — the illness, the family, his work, marital issues — underneath it all Stephen Hawking is a normal person. He may be much better at science than any of us could possibly hope to be, and that makes his story unique (among many other reasons), but it’s the everyday elements that shine through.
And as you may have guessed, given a few of my past reviews, all the other stuff (the science and the biographical elements) was also highly entertaining to watch. Going into the film, I knew about his theories and, probably most famously, how his second major one disproves his original doctoral thesis. But aside from that, I knew very little. What was his family and personal life like? Why is he in a wheelchair and use a computer voice? The Theory of Everything does a great job balancing the techno-babble about the theories, the minute details about Hawking’s life, and keeping the film appealing as a movie (i.e. it’s adapted very well into film form).
THE BAD: Where The Theory of Everything disappoints is in the structure and pace, or rather, the clarity of the two. It isn’t that the film feels too long or too short or that pieces fall in the wrong place. It’s more a sense of communicating the changes between individual moments. One of the biggest examples being Hawking’s diagnosis. When Stephen is diagnosed with motor neuron disease, he is given two years to live. Since that diagnosis, he has lived over 50 years. And watching the film, it’s clear that he is living longer than expected (his children are a great marker for this), but it’s not made clear.
One reason this is a problem is that none of the characters appear to age. If we got visual clues of aging, a more explicit mention of passing time would not be necessary. But as it stands, there’s a disconnect between what we see and what we perceive to be taking place. We understand that decades are passing as we watch this film and understand that Hawking has surpassed his life expectancy (we also know this simply from the fact that Hawking is still alive). A clear indication from the film is that the reason for Stephen’s prolonged life is due to his love for his wife Jane and her love for him.
But for a film that should be keenly aware about time (as many of Hawking’s theories revolve around time), the film seems as though time has stopped. While this may seem like a metaphor or some artistic choice that brings meaning to the film, it doesn’t. Or, if it is supposed to be, it defeats the whole point of the film which is about perseverance, love, and accomplishments. It’s about seeing how Hawking grows and changes from the person he is in the 1960s to where he is today. While the “stopping of time” symbolism might be make sense in another film, for what The Theory of Everything is trying to accomplish, it doesn’t.
THE TAKEAWAY: People have already started to mention The Theory of Everything as an Oscar contender for this upcoming awards seasons. While I highly agree in terms of the performances that Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones give — Redmayne is currently at the top of my list for who should win Best Actor — I hold some reservations about a Best Picture nomination. That isn’t to say this is a bad film; quite the contrary. In fact I think you’ll find The Theory of Everything to be much more interesting than you might think when you hear “Stephen Hawking biography”. Even if you don’t enjoy the science or biographical elements, there’s still a very strong human element to this film and is something I think anyone will be able to connect with.
The Theory of Everything opens in theaters next Friday, November 7, 2014 in limited release, expanding over the following two weeks.
THE RATING: 3 out of 5