Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Theory of Everything


Stephen Hawking’s ideas as a theoretical physicist produce more questions than answers for the layperson because of the complexity of his thoughts. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, a gauzy biopic about his first marriage, also leaves plenty to consider, although not by reason of great intricacy in what it presents. Rather, it can be maddeningly vague in what it leaves unexplained or tastefully hints at. Based on his ex-wife Jane Hawking’s book, the film gives the impression of a story that has been sanitized to secure the subjects’ authorization.

The film opens in 1963 at Cambridge, where Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a doctoral candidate searching for a topic. At a party he meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), an arts undergraduate studying French and Spanish. They hit it off that night, and Jane gives Stephen her phone number, which he often examines as though it’s an equation to be solved. Although she belongs to the Church of England and he doesn’t believe in God, the difference doesn’t keep them from being happy together.

To this point Stephen has exhibited some clumsiness that he doesn’t think twice about, but after a nasty spill one day he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease. A doctor informs him that the neurological disorder is gradually weakening his muscles. Eventually he will not be able to control his body. His brain will not be affected, but the average life expectancy for someone with this affliction is two years. Burdened with this news, Stephen avoids Jane and doesn’t tell her about his condition. When she learns the truth, he’s ready to break things off to spare her the pain and allow him to focus on his work. Instead she proclaims her love. They marry, have children, and see him become internationally lauded as his body deteriorates.

In math one must show the work. In THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING a tidy calculation is arrived at while scrubbing away the arithmetic that could support it. Director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten use montages to gloss over important stretches that could make the case for the great love that get Stephen and Jane through difficult times. The film jumps from post-ALS diagnosis to married life with a child, ignoring the transition to a more incapacitated state while he finishes his doctoral paper.

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING also makes another leap in which choir director Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox) becomes integrated into the Hawking family as a caretaker. At her mother’s suggestion a stressed Jane takes a brief time to herself by singing at church. Prior to the montage the unspoken attraction between Jane and the widowed Jonathan implies that she may turn to him for comfort in crisis. After the sequence of Jonathan assisting Stephen and becoming like a member of the household, Jane informs their helper that she is pregnant. Because of this elision the audience wonders if they have been intimate--Stephen’s parents certainly suspect it--yet Jane gives a vociferous denial before the two confess their feelings to one another.

Time and again THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING fails to dig into the emotional nuances and challenges, preferring to scurry along to the next key moment. The film collapses time so that the Hawkings’ marriage and Stephen’s professional success appear to endure because of predetermination. For circumstances rife with emotional and physical struggles, it all looks remarkably light on conflict. Redmayne is good at conveying the wit, rambunctiousness, and intellect trapped inside Stephen even as his body betrays him. Jones suffers beautifully as a woman devoted to a man reliant on her. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING stops short of making them both saints, but in smoothing over their conflicts, it does a disservice to the hardships they bore. It’s not that every complication needed to be detailed but that Stephen and Jane’s relationship shouldn’t be simplified to where they become sentimental mascots for vowing to stick with someone through sickness.

Grade: C

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