November 13, 2014 / Filmwell
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November 7, 2014
The Theory of Everything is a film potentially about so much it runs into the problem of deciding what it has to say. The marriage of Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde is well publicized – the subject of two separate and lengthy accounts by Wilde. The first, Music to Move the Stars gave way a few years later to Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen. Marsh’s film is based on the latter, which dialed back the candor of the former. Between the two accounts, Hawking’s second marriage dissolved quite publicly, which a few reviewers credited with the shift in tone.
The glow of Travelling to Infinity colors this biopic. Their introduction in Cambridge, followed by a young marriage blooming despite Hawking’s diagnosis, makes for a charming first act. Marsh fills the frame with cut stone courtyards and archways along the Cam. Jane tends to Hawking’s physical needs as his research grows in popularity. They have children together and weather the complications of their relationship. The performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are entrancing as they age together through the film, Redmayne inhabiting Hawking’s physical deterioration in minute detail. In a moment toward the end of the film we see them together years after their separation, watching their grown children play in a manicured garden. They look older, worn, the film convincingly selling its passage of time.
These details of their life together are the most interesting aspect of the film. Marsh captures the obvious difficulties of their relationship well, in telling little glances, the heft of Hawking’s body, the lifting and bumping of wheelchairs, the mashing of peas, the wiping of dribbles from his chin. This impulse to simply watch their marriage unfold serves the film well as it turns toward the circumstances of their divorce, a moment wrought in a series of knowing, painful gestures. The Theory of Everything hints at much blame to go around, choosing not to settle on any specific reasons as to its dissolution.
This is where the film becomes indecisive. The details of their divorce and Hawking’s second marriage are a matter of public record, yet the harsher edges of this story don’t appear in the film. One gets the impression that their introduction would burst this fragile bubble Marsh has created. As a result, the film is content to skim along the surface, passing quickly by the confrontations and realizations that feel like the real substance of this relationship.
There are a lot of opportunities here to dig a bit more deeply into Stephen and Jane. I can’t think of a marriage that so neatly captures the pressures and anxieties of an era that framed scientific advancement in terms of the “death of God.” But the film does not link Stephen’s Theory of Everything to the growing entropy of his marriage. Jane raises boilerplate C of E theological misgivings about Hawking’s work, but these are more posed as points of comic relief than plot development. We are left to wonder how marriages do work in the midst of such conflicts over God, history, and time. Because they can, certainly, the Hawkings an iconic example while it lasted.
The wonderful nuances of Jones’ performance do not overcome the film’s turn toward hagiography. All of these intriguing questions about their relationship just fade into the background – the film doing well at chronicling the difficulties of their physical relationship at the expense of its most interesting emotional aspects. Even the fateful addition of the church’s handsome choir director to their relationship is marked by a slim nostalgia.
In a very superficial way, the film tracks the nature of Hawking’s scientific accomplishments. We are given a thumbnail sketch of his key advances in a lesson involving peas as quantum mechanics and potatoes as general relativity. But the film lacks the intensity of his process, the painstaking reconstruction of basic concepts of physics by a man physically trapped in his own mind. If you are wondering why Hawking is such an important intellectual and scientific figure, you won’t find your answers in this film. It is almost trite in its account of Hawking’s successes. To be fair, this is not just Marsh’s fault. Cinema in general has a hard time depicting the intensity of the scientific process because in actuality, intellectual advances are built upon boring, detailed, and high context work.
There is much present between the lines of The Theory of Everything. It provokes thoughts about ambition, genius, even ego as constructive responses to cosmic imbalances. The story weds many of the central intellectual conflicts of our era to Hawking’s personal biography – which itself pits flesh against spirit. And the buzz regarding its performances is well deserved. But it falls short of its promise to encompass anything resembling everything.