The Theory of Everything Review

Posted: January 25, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

theory_of_everythingWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

About a month ago in my review for The Imitation Game, I made note of the fact that it was one of two major prestige films that seemed like an obvious attempt at Oscar-bait. Every year there are usually a few films about individuals overcoming obstacles and telling a simplistic moral. These are usually biopics, the individuals often have some sort of disability, and the films are generally made to be easily digested by a wide audience. The Imitation Game certainly fit that description and while it did end up being a fairly mediocre work, Alan Turing’s life seemed ripe for cinematic exploration so I at least had hope the movie would be something special. I had less confidence in the other major Oscar-bait release, the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. Hawking is certainly an important individual, but the film’s marketing just oozed the kind of mediocrity I described earlier and I’ve grown to actively dislike such unambitious, middlebrow filmmaking. My viewing of the film was pretty heavily dependent on whether or not the film received a Best Picture nomination, and since it did, I was there. I did make a conscious effort to go into the film with an open mind, but my expectations were average.

The film opens with Stephen Hawking (played here by Eddie Redmayne) as a young physics student at Cambridge University. Stephen is an exceptionally bright student and his theories on time and the universe are intelligent and bold. While at school, Stephen meets fellow student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) and the two begin a relationship. This is challenged when Stephen is diagnosed with motor neuron disease, which will slowly destroy his body. Jane refuses to leave him however, and Stephen himself uses the disease as a sort of incentive to push himself harder. Despite only being given two years to live, Stephen would of course live much longer, and in the process become an icon in the field of science and the world over.

James Marsh is a director mostly known for his documentaries Project Nim and the Academy Award winning Man on Wire. I was curious to see how his skills would transfer over into narrative filmmaking, and he does show talent. In particular, Marsh picks some interesting angles to shoot from and his camera movements are pretty fluid and well executed as well. The lighting is also more stylish than I would have expected it to be, although this is something of a double-edged sword. While the bright, almost euphoric lights does make the visuals more memorable, it also gives the film an almost aggressively pleasant look. Then again, I suppose this look is in line with the rest of the film, which is almost devoid of drama for much of its runtime. Oh, the fact that Stephen’s disease has such a profound effect on his body does make for some inherent conflict, but the film does whatever it can to soften the blow elsewhere. This is particularly true in Stephen’s reactions with others, which are almost uniformly positive. Almost everyone is accommodating of his condition and his career is marked by a series of major successes, and no failures. Maybe this is how Stephen’s life really did play out, and if so good for him, but it doesn’t make for very compelling cinema.

The film does try to mine some drama out of the relationship struggles between Stephen and Jane, particularly in the implication of affairs the two of them probably did have. There’s certainly something there, but Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten tiptoe so carefully around these points to ensure everyone still retains maximum likability. It lacks teeth and also feels very calculated. Additionally, the film also explores the notion of Jane growing tired of serving as Stephen’s caretaker and the sacrifices she has to make. Once again, there’s a lot of potential in this storyline but the filmmakers lack the courage to really go there. Specifically, if the point is to show the burden Jane has to carry, you really need to emphasize the sort of things she needs to put up with. Show her having to clean Stephen, dress him, carry him, all of the demanding, sometimes disgusting aspects that came with carrying for someone the way she did for years. Instead, the film plays it safe and the most we get are a few scenes of Jane feeding Stephen.

There is one aspect of the film that lives up to its award recognition and that would be the performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. Redmayne in particular is very good as Hawking. The physicality of the role is obviously highly demanding and Redmayne captures the physical digression of Stephen’s body quite well. Even in the later scenes where Stephen’s body is mostly inactive, Redmayne is still able to pull off quite a bit with the limited muscles he’s able to move. I also appreciated how Redmayne maintained a sense of humour throughout and in general the performance did not just feel a showcase for the physical hardship, but a complete character. Bottom line, it’s a great performance, the kind I wouldn’t have expected after being relatively unimpressed by Redmayne’s work in films like My Week with Marilyn and Les Miserables. Felicity Jones has also been receiving a lot of attention for her work and she is indeed pretty good here, capturing the emotional temperament of her role well. Much as I think the film failed to really explore Jane’s burden, Jones performance goes a long way to make up for that.

On the whole, I’d say The Theory of Everything hit my expectations almost exactly. It’s a perfectly watchable film, but one that does not do anything new or exciting. It’s ironic that Hawking is a man known for his wild, bold, and ambitious ideas, and yet his biopic is so remarkably safe. Ultimately, this safety is the film’s greatest flaw. After all, the film is mostly well made and the acting is very strong, but there’s nothing of real significance here. Some will argue that the film is a testament to the endurance of the human spirit, and I could get behind that, but that would require the spirit to endure something, and The Theory of Everything doesn’t have the courage to go there. Once we move out of award’s season I imagine the film will fade from public conscious pretty quickly.

C

Comments
  1. Dan O. says:

    Redmayne and Jones deserved a better movie here. Even if they do try their hardest. Good review Dan.

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