By Chaz Lipp
What do we learn about the groundbreaking theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking in the new biographical film The Theory of Everything? That he was capable of impregnating his wife despite his physical disabilities. That pretty much sums up Hawking’s life story as presented by director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (adapting Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen). The Hawkings had a few kids together and were proud of them. That might be a warm and fuzzy sentiment, but it’s not an accomplishment (we’re never even clued in to whether their kids did anything worthwhile with their lives). Those seeking to learn something about Stephen Hawking’s scientific accomplishments will need to look elsewhere. Sadly, despite five Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture), that pretty much renders The Theory of Everything “The Story of Nothing.”
Eddie Redmayne plays the famous physicist with what might be called an impish glee. We first meet Hawking as an able-bodied Cambridge University student in 1963. He’s a quick-witted intellectual with his eye on fellow student Jane (Felicity Jones). His secular pursuit of “a single unifying equation that explains everything in the universe” is distinctly at odds with Jane’s deep-seated Christian beliefs. Nonetheless, they fall madly in love. When motor neuron disease begins to slowly claim Hawking’s mobility, doctors give him two years tops. Jane, against nearly everyone’s wishes, stands by her man. Hawking is, of course, still with us (he turned 73 last month). Though his and Jane’s marriage ended in divorce in 1995, their love story serves as the basis for Everything.
Unfortunately, as depicted in onscreen, Mr. and Mrs. Hawking’s personal life isn’t all that compelling. Stephen’s ever-deteriorating physical condition leads to some unconventional lifestyle choices, including the addition of a male live-in nanny. Jonathan (Charlie Cox), a sad sack church choir director, is allowed to emasculate Stephen by serving as an ersatz father to his children and husband to Jane. Though Jane remains physically faithful to Stephen, she and Jonathan (who improbably sticks around, even given the lack of physical intimacy) clearly have an emotional bond that goes far beyond friendship. Stephen appears at ease with this unusual living situation, though later on he develops similar feelings for his communication therapist Elaine (Maxine Peake).
It all sounds more interesting than it really is which is due to Marsh and McCarten’s superficial handling of these complex relationships. As for Stephen’s professional life, forget about it. The filmmakers make very little effort to contextualize his work. Instead we get plenty of Jane attempting to convert Stephen to Christianity. By the time he makes the faintest gesture of agnosticism, it’s difficult not to wonder what exactly Jane was attempting accomplish. Since it’s based on Jane’s book, it’s no wonder it’s more Jane’s story than Stephen’s. And no matter how much she steadfastly praises Stephen to everyone (not to mention clearly willing to go to great lengths to care for him), she apparently wanted a man of God, not a man of science.
On the plus side, the acting is solid. Redmayne’s performance inevitably falls into that uncomfortable territory of Oscar-baiting disability mimicry. He does what he can to convey some depth of emotion, but the focus remains squarely on his imitation of Hawking’s debilitating condition. Jones is strikingly understated, playing Jane as a woman perpetually unsure of what she desires in life. Emily Watson is notably underused in what amounts to a cameo as Jane’s mother, Beryl. Though Beryl can’t believe her daughter has kept her legs closed around the virile nanny Jonathan, Jane insists she has remained faithful to Stephen. In the end, The Theory of Everything reduces Stephen Hawking to little more than a horny guy in a wheelchair. And that’s sad, considering the Hawkings’ lives could’ve yielded a much deeper film.
The Theory of Everything – Images: Focus Features