The intriguing biopic ‘Theory of Everything’ is marred by an unearned upbeat ending

December 28, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 28, 2014

The Theory of Everything, English director James Marsh’s new feature, is a domestic drama that documents the romantic and marital relationship between Jane and Stephen Hawking.

Marsh and his screenwriter, Anthony McCarten, working off of Jane Hawking’s memoir, begin their tale in 1963 at Cambridge University in England, where he is a brand-new doctoral candidate in physics and she is studying medieval European poetry (apparently as an undergraduate). There’s an instant attraction between the pair, played by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, when they spot each other at a party.

The fair-haired scientist is barely bold enough to act upon it and start chatting up the pretty brunette. (Barely — at evening’s end, Jane walks off but then dashes back and hands Stephen a napkin with her phone number scribbled on it.) After some stalling, the atheistic Stephen intercepts Jane, a devout Anglican, outside church one Sunday morning and invites her to his family’s home for lunch. Jane tolerates his quirky, brilliant and opinionated father and siblings (Stephen’s mom seems to be perfectly agreeable) before consenting to go to a spring ball with him after he announces to his kin that she’s already agreed to be his date.

There, the pair chat, she asks him to dance and he declines, Stephen expounds about science, they gape at fireworks, he asks her to dance and she agrees, they kiss chastely and the camera pulls back on a picture-perfect outdoor party scene.

As Stephen begins developing theories about black holes and time, his body starts devolving. After he’s diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and given two years to live, he tries to reject Jane, but she insists on seeing him.

The pair marry, move into a house and start a family. Stephen’s paralysis spreads: He uses canes to negotiate level surfaces, crawling and sliding his way up and down the stairs, before increasing frailty forces him to concede defeat and settle into a wheelchair. (“It’s just temporary,” he insists; Jane nods, silently and solemnly.) His bed is permanently installed in the kitchen.

When Jane’s frustration at caring for Stephen and their two rowdy young children starts to boil over, her mother suggests that she join the church choir. There, she meets a kindly parson and/or choir director, a widower named Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox). The sweet, lonely Jones, who is respectful of Stephen whilst being attracted to Jane, volunteers to help the Hawkings and becomes a fixture in their household. This causes talk of scandal among Hawking’s family, as we see after Jane delivers the couple’s third child.

Stephen’s condition continues to deteriorate. After he’s hospitalized with pneumonia while on a foreign trip to see a Wagnerian opera performance, a Swiss doctor suggests that Jane withdraw life support and allow Stephen to die peacefully. But Jane insists that her husband continue to receive care; she authorizes a tracheotomy, which will permanently impair Stephen’s ability to speak, so he has a chance to exist without the assistance of a mechanical respirator.

A new aide, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), visits the Hawking household in order to help Stephen learn to communicate with the help of a color-coded sign board. It’s a cumbersome process: First, Stephen blinks at the mention of the color that corresponds with the desired group of letters; then he blinks at the mention of the color that corresponds with the desired letter within that group. This continues until the listener is able to spell out the physicist’s word or sentence.

Mason soon becomes Hawking’s aide and confidante — a fixture in his life (if not necessarily his household) much in the same way that Jones had joined the family’s orbit earlier. There’s also a romantic attraction between the pair that mirrors the bond between Jane and Jones. The relationship cranks up the marital tension as never before.

There’s a little more to the plot, which I won’t divulge — but not much more. The movie ends on a strangely hopeful note, one that doesn’t feel entirely earned.

And that’s how I felt about the entire movie, ultimately. The love story works, but it feels more artificial than artful; it seemed to me afterward that the movie showed as many Hawking children (three) as it did romantic Hawking kisses (three — the couple’s first kiss, a kiss at the Hawking’s wedding and a kiss on the first night that Stephen’s bed is installed in the kitchen). It’s easy to understand why Jane — or Jones — would admire Stephen’s intellect; it’s harder to comprehend how the relationship would forge the kind of powerful bond that the movie depicts.

It’s not that The Theory of Everything is a bad movie; in fact, it’s pleasant and enjoyable and slightly — every-so-slightly — challenging to its audience’s likely notions about love, physics and physical frailty. It’s just that Marsh, McCarten and company seem to be so intent on crafting an upbeat and even inspirational ending that the emotional arc we’re shown doesn’t quite match up with anything that we’ve seen depicted on the screen.

The moviemakers faced at least one key challenge in making The Theory of Everything: Many of its subjects (notably Jane and Stephen Hawking) are still alive, and thus able to sue for defamation if they objected strongly enough to the film’s contents. (I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding is that British courts treat defamation plaintiffs much more favorably than do American ones.)

Perhaps — perhaps! — one day, after the Hawkings conclude what I hope will be long and fulfilling lives, a movie will be made that is a bit more willing to wrangle with the less pretty aspects of Jane and Stephen’s lives. Until then, we’ll have to settle for The Theory of Everything.

It’s a work that’s beautifully acted, by Jones but even more so by Redmayne, who seems to shrink in on himself as the film progresses. The acting is matched by the cinematography, the costumes (although Jane’s clothing seems to telegraph her emotions a bit too plainly) and the production design. Unfortunately, the script, for all the familiar and even effective emotional beats that it hits, just doesn’t have the same heft or authenticity as the rest of the material.

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