The Theory of Everything movie review: Call it the black hole
Star Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis
Directed: James Marsh
SCIENTIST Stephen Hawking is still looking for that “one simple equation that explains everything”. The person Stephen Hawking knows better than most that life itself has a way of bucking theories. This film, despite a virtuoso performance by Redmayne and a great effort by Jones, doesn’t allow him that courtesy.
Based on a book by Hawking’s first wife Jane (Jones), and directed by Oscar-winning director Marsh, The Theory of Everything smooths out all the rough edges of the scientist’s life. As if a celebrated physicist who has sold 10 million copies of a book on the history of time, shaken widely held scientific beliefs, and beaten death, can’t be liked as he is. So no, Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) has to be this awkward, charming lover; adorable, witty scientist; and then a loving, understanding husband, to a woman who, in her own account, threw a more honest light on their union. Hawking himself enjoys the reputation of being a formidable and forbidding man who is not very easy to get along with.
But the film will have none of it — neither the hard work of his science nor, in some ways, the harder work of making this marriage work. Rather, it gives us a close look at the withering away of Hawking’s body under motor neuron disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Uncomfortable as it is, this only underlines the film’s determination to see Hawking the genius rather than Hawking the man. Hawking, who lent his voice to the film, has called it “broadly true”.
We meet Hawking in 1963, as a graduate student at Cambridge, about to embark on his PhD. In little tics, small missed steps, and the objects he topples over, the disease has already started manifesting, but can be easily overlooked in the heady mix of academia and the chance meeting with the lovely Jane. Both are easily bowled over — the first despite the little work Hawking actually puts in, and the second despite the fact that he has a tendency to question God repeatedly. Jane is a Christian who wants to study poetry for her PhD.
Redmayne pulls off these sequences quite well, especially the faint awkwardness in the gait, the slight contortions in the fingers and the fleeting frowns. As he rushes about like a man in a hurry, our hearts are in our mouth.
The truth is finally evident after a ball that could easily fit in into a Disney fairytale, topped with a kiss. Hawking has a hard fall on the pavement, and the diagnosis comes in. He is told he has less than two years to live.
Hawking withdraws into a shell, rejecting all company. When Jane comes to visit him, he turns her away. She provokes him into a game of croquet. In one of the film’s most animated scenes between the two, he plays an angry game, trying to hit the ball through the hoops, and she breaks down feeling his pain.
That’s the closest the film gets to actually depicting what being together could be like for two people in such a condition. While it goes on to tick all the events in Hawking’s life after this, we see neither the trauma of a man talking about the beginning, the end, and then the timelessness of time when counting days himself, or the bitterness of him fathoming the expanse of the cosmos trapped in a body restricted to a wheelchair. His deductions, derived after long, lonely and presumably agonising hours of work, are reduced to warm flashes of brilliance.
Jane’s struggles with this marriage are as insipidly displayed, though the film does her more justice later when she finds companionship outside. In Jones’s impressive portrayal, Jane is always a little short of breath, afraid to exhale, afraid of all that may tumble out.
One of her most unguarded moments is when Hawking gets a computer that says aloud what he types, after he has lost his ability to speak. “But the voice is American!” she says in genuine horror.
By then Hawking’s nurse who would finally break their marriage is already in it. And for all those who wondered how that romance blossomed, Marsh has the answers. Redmayne’s Hawking suddenly has a new twinkle in the eye, even as the nurse is just the right mix of fawning and bossy, at a time when Jane is losing her strength for it.
Jones also shines in the repressed arguments Jane has with Hawking over God. Without it ever being stated so implicitly, it’s clear He plays a very important role in Jane’s life, and it’s a debate she fears she has long lost with her husband.
The film itself has no such fears. In both how it stages some events and how The Theory of Everything approaches that topic, it hints that particular battle is far from over.
Call it the black hole.