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THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING is a fine story about a relationship and a disability (but light on the ‘theory’)

Posted on December 5th, 2014
Posted on December 5th, 2014

by Coop Cooper

Preeminent physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) attends Cambridge as a graduate student in Cosmology and falls madly in love with Romance Languages student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). Hawking proves himself as an intimidatingly brilliant scholar and he wows his instructors with his theories on how a black hole created the universe. Soon after he has an accident on campus and learns he has ALS or ‘Lou Gehrig’s Disease’ which is a degenerative motor-neuron condition that doctors predict will give Hawkins only two years to live. Crushed, Hawking pushes Jane away but her love for him only strengthens their connection. After a quick wedding, Jane cares for the increasingly debilitated Hawking as he tries to prove a ‘Unified Theory’ while they raise a family amidst the strain of his deteriorating physical condition. A kindly church organist (Charlie Cox) with a crush on Jane and a spirited new nurse (Maxine Peake) for Hawking further complicates the relationship.

This film has less to do with Hawking’s accomplishments as a scientist and more about his struggles with ALS and his roller coaster relationship with Jane. Near the end when Hawking releases his infamous book “A Brief History of Time”, the story focus briefly on his achievements but this is mostly due to Jane being out of the picture. Few viewers who see this movie will truly understand Hawking’s accomplishments. Not because they wouldn’t understand the theories, but because the film doesn’t dive into them or attempt to explain anything but a couple of basic ideas. This is probably for the best but I could’ve used a nice “Cosmos”-styled visual effects/explanation of a few of his theories to help me see things the way Hawking sees it.

The film likewise doesn’t focus on Hawking’s later life, his marriage to his nurse Elaine or what he has been pursuing since “A Brief History of Time” (1988) to the present day. This would have been nicely relevant since Hawking defied all odds to live up into his early seventies with no signs of retiring, figuratively or literally, anytime soon. One of the interesting points of Hawking dealing with his disability is how he and Jane campaigned for wheelchair ramps and other facility improvements at Cambridge to not just aid him, but all disabled students. Alas, this was not included at all in the film. A shame since some the most uplifting scenes happen when he receives accommodations to improve his life like his first electric wheelchair and his first text-to-speech communicator.

Hawking’s atheistic beliefs on religion were addressed in the film, yet when his character was confronted with his own struggles in life and his knowledge of the universe, he expressed hope in discovering the unknown and the miracle that find us in life. This idea becomes the signature moment in the film and provides an emotional thread for those without Hawking’s intellect (read: All of us) to cling to.

Redmayne provides a powerful performance while wheelchair-bound and unable to speak for two-thirds of the film. He is certainly a contender for an Oscar nomination, but I worry his performance might be too ‘static’ for Academy voters to fully appreciate. Like in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” about a French writer with ‘locked-in’ syndrome who could only communicate through blinking, it’s difficult for many viewers to empathize with someone who cannot communicate emotions through overt facial expressions or speech.

While I’ve never noticed Felicity Jones in her previous films, as Jane Hawking I’d say she shows some potential here to break out in British TV/film if not in mainstream American cinema. I did take issue with how makeup portrayed Jane in less happier years as overly pale with dark rings under her eyes and no color in her lips. It made her character seem too physically and mentally exasperated when dealing with Hawking’s illness, as if she had lost all hope far earlier than she should have. It took all sympathy from her and I felt it was an unfair choice.

The Theory of Everything” is a warm and thoughtful biographical film that takes the simplest route to tell its story. Hawking himself called the film “broadly accurate”, which some have interpreted to be a sarcastically playful (yet guarded) endorsement.

Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5

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