The bare facts of Stephen Hawking’s life are astounding. One of the smartest men who has ever lived is, during his early adulthood, stricken with an illness that will so debilitate his body as to render him incapable of expressing that mental ability and is expected to end his life within two years. He not only survives well beyond the two years but uses a combination of his own perseverance and technology to become one of the two most famous physicists of his time (Carl Sagan being the other) and a celebrity who inspires even the non-science-minded.
That astonishing and profoundly inspiring story seems ripe for film, and so of course Hollywood came calling long ago, producing the biographical A Brief History of Time (Errol Morris, UK/Japan/USA 1991) and a slew of science documentaries that use his background to interest the public in his science. However, James Marsh had a rather different concept for what as far as I can tell is the first non-documentary film about Hawking–his film is in fact based on the two autobiographies of Hawking’s first wife, Jane, instead of any of Hawking’s own work. As a result, it is a film that is largely focused on the relationship between those two people, with Hawking’s career serving as a plot point and part of the background for its love story but not as the film’s central plot.
The story this film tells is at once very simple and very complex. The basic love story narrative is here: two people meet, fall in love, and then problems arise as their relationship continues. However, instead of being a single problem and a question of how these people will surmount it, the film chronicles numerous issues, beginning with some extreme differences in background and basic assumptions about the world and continuing through Stephen’s illness and various bouts with depression, Jane’s inability to cope with the demand’s of the complications that Stephen’s illness creates, Jane falling in love with another man, Stephen’s eventual and rather sudden fame, and Stephen’s falling in love with another woman. The film doesn’t gloss over any of those issues, bringing them all up and allowing us to watch the lead characters attempt to stay together through them all. And that gives the film a deep, rich plot that is never dull or repetitive.
However, the film also severely lacks cohesiveness. It is so interested in chronicling the many tribulations of the Hawkings that it doesn’t bother to tie them together. It’s unwilling to skip over or over-focus on anything, and as a result, the film becomes nothing more than a way-too-fast story. In fact, it becomes almost a textbook example of why films cannot really tell stories.
Just as an example, while Jane’s relationship with Jonathan Jones is certainly depicted, it’s really only probably 15 minutes of screen time spent to show Jane going from an understandably-exasperated wife who just wants help with her basic household upkeep to being in love with a different man. It’s the kind of shorthand storytelling that we let films get away with because it’s a necessity of the medium, but that’s why there needs to be a reason for showing us this particular issue in the marriage instead of another.
Another victim of the time issue is the characterization of everyone involved. While Jane and Stephen certainly act imperfectly in their development of feelings for other people during their marriage, they also come across as almost inhumanly understanding and thoughtful of one another. Every time one of them feels put upon, the other acknowledges it and tries to help. Every time one of them starts to need something, the other starts to provide it. And neither complains, no matter what they go through. We let characters be this two-dimensional in films because there isn’t time to build fully-developed characters the way there is in, for example, a novel. But without a point to make, this film needs its characters and plot to carry it, and in expecting them to do so, it really shows why it is that films should not expect that.
The film has an interesting story and interesting characters as far as most films can, but it doesn’t go any further, and it needs to in order to make up for its failure to make any point.
Marsh and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme are hamstrung by the film’s script, in that it makes it difficult to do anything to enhance the film’s point when it doesn’t have one. They try some interesting visual ideas during the early scenes, draping the party where Stephen and Jane meet in a heavy blue hue and showing us Stephen’s view of how the dance party is what stars would look like if we could see everything they gave off. However, as the film progresses, the visuals become increasingly conventional. There are a few attempts to convey the grandeur of the cosmos that so interests Stephen, but those are poorly-done CGI shots that do nothing compared to the spectacle of the universe at its best.
On the bright side, the acting was universally excellent. Eddie Redmayne has a relatively simple task for much of the film, but Stephen’s physical deterioration is made all the more heartbreaking by how excellent he is in every detail of the film’s early moments. He is portraying many emotions, often including difficult, mixed emotions at any one time, and they are all readable on his face. His ability to portray Hawking’s neuronal deterioration is what will get more attention, but it’s the first half hour of the film that really showcases Redmayne’s acting. Felicity Jones, meanwhile, does the reverse, coming off as a bit stiff in the early scenes but performing the deeper, more complex later work wonderfully. David Thewlis returns to Professor Lupin as though he had never left. There is not a poor performance to be found.
All in all, The Theory of Everything is pretty much what it looks like going in–a love story that’s trying to do a bit too much for its medium and doesn’t know how to tie itself together but still has an interesting-enough story with interesting-enough characters and such excellent acting that it isn’t dull or painful to sit through. The lack of a unifying point is a problem that the film just can’t get around, but it’s far from the worst film ever made.