Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Crippled: The Theory of Everything

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything

I haven’t found a theory to explain everything in the universe, but I have come up with a theory about The Theory of Everything: it’s a shallow, tame adaptation of Jane Hawking’s memoir, diluted to the point of tedium in order to appeal to a broad audience, content to pass over the interesting and challenging aspects of Stephen Hawking’s life in order to present a clichéd love plot. But that’s just a theory – you’ll have to see it as well before we can make this an empirical exercise.

The film begins in the 1960s, when a young and able-bodied Hawking (a very admirable Eddie Redmayne) is studying astrophysics at Cambridge. His infatuation with literature student Jane (button-cute Felicity Jones) coincides with the first stirrings of his impending motor neuron disease, and we follow them as they marry, build a family, and finally separate due to the strain the disease places on them both.

Unfortunately, Anthony McCarten’s screenplay glosses over the messy moments that define the day-to-day interaction of such a relationship, and paints their story in nearly defamatory broad strokes. (Hawking himself was guarded about his reaction to the film; he described Jones, playing his ex-wife, with one word – “charming” – and conducted an apparently dreadfully awkward interview with the earnest Redmayne, who embarrassed himself by talking about astrology to a world-famous astrophysicist.) James Marsh does few favours with his direction, as well: in an early scene, when Stephen discovers the first shaky-handed signs of what is to come by knocking over a cup of coffee to the heady strains of Wagner, the effect is cringingly melodramatic. The actors – to say nothing of a doubtlessly dedicated crew – seem to be the only ones working hard to elevate the material.

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking
The supporting cast performs admirably. Charlie Cox is subtle and sympathetic as choir leader-turned-home nurse Jonathan, even as he makes a cuckold out of the not-unwitting Hawking, and Felicity Jones gives Jane colour and likeability. Her performance, full of patience and pert meaningful smiles, is as nuanced as the script and direction are not. But Redmayne, as Hawking, is the obvious candidate for critical attention with his exacting and highly physical performance. He is drawing comparisons to Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, and I think that’s fair, considering how little, character-wise, Redmayne is given to work with and how much more brutally self-sacrificial Day-Lewis’ Method performances are. Redmayne is wholly convincing with his wobbly, knock-kneed walk in the early stages of Hawking’s disease and his twisted, tensed-up posture and speech once the physicist becomes wheelchair-bound – and all of it dropped at a moment’s notice whenever James Marsh called “cut”. This makes it an empathetic sight to see the sensitive Redmayne contort himself, knowing that at the end of the day he can stand up straight again, while the real-life figure he portrays cannot. It’s a shining beacon of dedication and craft in a bog of dull storytelling.

The real problem, so far as I’m concerned, is that there’s far too little Stephen Hawking in a film that’s ostensibly about him. As I mentioned, it’s based on Jane Hawking’s book about her personal relationship with the famous physicist, and so the movie is entirely focused on this relationship as well, instead of the man himself or his scientific achievements. I kept waiting for more scenes with his collegiate peers or his mentor, Sciama (David Thewlis) – anything to contextualize Hawking as the tireless scientific pioneer he is in reality – but glimpses of how people in his world see him are few and far between. Hawking is almost entirely characterized by his relationship with Jane, which does a disservice to the real man as well as undercutting the emotional strength of the film. As a result there is woefully little science in the film, and the saccharine and predictable romance plot we’re given could have been about any relationship in which one partner has a disability. In effect, it’s not a biopic at all. Filmgoers like me, excited by the prospect of learning anything about Hawking’s life or accomplishments, are likely to be disappointed.

The challenging subject matter inherent to Hawking’s life, like his progression into his disease and his growing distance with Jane, are by far the most interesting parts of the story of his relationship with his first wife, but they are watered-down or passed over entirely in favour of a half-baked love triangle arc and other tepid romantic clichés. It’s unclear whether or not the film’s milquetoast presentation was due to the producers pussyfooting around the wishes of Hawking and his family, but in the end it’s a flavourless experience. I can’t propose this Theory except to those whose Romantic Banality Tolerance is far greater than mine.

 Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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