Review: The Theory of Everything (Marsh, 2014)

Still from the movie The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything is based off of a memoir by Jane Hawking, physicist Stephen Hawking‘s first wife. It is a biopic of Stephen, but not quite, focusing more on Jane’s marriage to Hawking than on his achievements. Instead, the science is alluded to, glossed over; we take it on faith that Hawking is brilliant. His illness, however, is center stage in the film. Perhaps this is necessary since ALS was the part of Stephen that most impacted Jane’s life; still, it calls into question what it is that fascinates us about the physicist. Taking for granted that he is the most famous scientist alive today, I’m curious to know if he’s more famous for his genius or his genius in the face of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Surely the appearance of his likeness on shows such as The Simpsons and The Family Guy have a bit more to do with the latter than the former. A shame then, for I surmise that for Hawking himself the disease is a side note, his work the headline.

I am no fan of biopics in general. I find them to be a rather shallow means of exploring a life, more interested in being complete than in being insightful. Though The Theory of Everything is not quite a biopic of Stephen Hawking (or Jane, for that matter), it is still a biopic of their marriage. In that sense, it may fall into the same trap. If it does, though, one is less prone to notice because the “events” in a marriage are emotional milestones rather than external ones. There are more than a few poignant scenes carried by the rich, wordless communication between Eddie Redmayne‘s Stephen and Felicity Jones‘s Jane. Both central actors are terrific in the film, and it’s remarkable to see how like the original Stephen Hawking they make Redmayne seem (at least based on the pictures I could find online). I don’t know what Hawking is like in real life, but I suspect from what I’ve read that Redmayne’s version does an excellent job of capturing his playfulness, wit, and independence. Of course I know even less about Jane, but Jones’s mixture of determination, exasperation, and hard-bitten, un-self-pitying sacrifice rings true enough.

Overall, though, it is still a rather ordinary movie about human hope and human failure and human persistence. It is unremittingly uplifting, the type of movie I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to my mother, who will undoubtedly shed a few tears and feel the better for it. The people in it are for the most part decent, kind, of strong English character. Viewers will have no trouble relating to Jane, whose intelligence is as strong as her husband’s and whose tenacity may be even stronger. Despite her three children and invalid husband, she won’t give up on Stephen even when he has given up on himself; she won’t give up her own dream of completing her Ph.D. in medieval Spanish poetry; she won’t give up hope that her atheist husband will come round to God. That’s good and all that, but perhaps not as interesting as it could be. I’m always hoping the movies I watch will arouse me; I’m always surprised by how consistently I’m disappointed. Nonetheless, a solid family film; good for the holidays.

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