TIFF 2014: The Theory of Everything
Review by Zachary Shevich
For those who only know Stephen Hawking from the popularity of his book A Brief History of Time, or the robotic voice generated from his speaking device, there will be plenty to discover about the man’s life in The Theory of Everything. For those more familiar with the theoretical physicist and his many accomplishments, there is little additional insight than what you’d find in a quick scan of his Wikipedia page. Either way, The Theory of Everything humanizes one of the world’s most influential minds and turns the man’s (and his family’s) battle against ALS into a fervently inspirational story.
Beginning at Cambridge in 1963, the early part of the film tracks Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) as he pursues his PhD and develops a thesis around the idea of a black hole at the center of the universe. While at the university he meets Jane (Felicity Jones), a bright young girl studying Spanish and French in hopes of getting her doctorate in Medieval Spanish Poetry. Though opposites in many ways, notably Hawking’s hardcore atheism and Jane’s commitment to Christianity (or the “C of E” as she labels it), there’s a chemistry that clearly allows each to bring the best out of one another.
The film makes some obvious allusions to Hawking’s impending diagnosis early and often. Through short insert shots, Hawking struggles with picking up pens or properly grasping a coffee mug, until a fall on his campus leads to doctors to diagnosis him with motor neuron disease and two years to live. While Hawking understandably sulks for the following few scenes, it’s Jane that turns into his champion, insisting that she wants to spend as much time by his side as possible.
Jane’s push to keep Stephen going becomes the driving force of the film. While Hawking is seen developing theories and lecturing other scientists, it’s Jane’s continued dedication to his health that becomes the most compelling part of the story. It’s largely due to being one of the few areas of the film with any real conflict; after learning Stephen has approximately two years to live, Jane unknowingly becomes involved in a lifetime of being a caretaker not only to Hawking but their three children. It’s a relationship that becomes far more give than take and seeing the years of effort wear Jane down allows Felicity Jones to give a beautifully layered performance. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that much of the movie focuses on Jane’s hardships as Everything is an adaptation of Jane Hawking’s memoir Travel to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking.
Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking is fantastic as well. It’s both an extremely physical performance and one that requires significant vocal control. One of Theory’s best aspects is how over the course of the movie’s 123-minute runtime Hawking’s condition slowly but noticeably deteriorates. As the film progresses forward in time, it’s clear to see how Hawking’s health worsens but the film’s characters rarely explicitly state any specifics of his condition. As an audience member, it was heartbreaking to watch as a brilliant man becomes reduced to the slumped over, wheelchair-clad figure we’re all familiar with; however, in Anthony McCarten’s screenplay, the movie turns adversity into fodder for inspiration.
Outside of its breathtaking lead performances, Everything does little to separate itself from the realm of the by-the-numbers biopic. While Hawking’s scientific career is unparalleled, in the film we’re only witness to the highlight reel package of his achievements (developing his first thesis, writing his most famous book, meeting the Queen of England, etc.). There are scenes in which director James Marsh (Shadow Boxer, the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire) and his cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (1408, Lawless) vary elements slightly by sprinkling in scenes with vivid colors but by and large it’s the performances and not the direction itself that keeps the movie engaging. Like many biopics, Theory lacks an antagonist or major conflict to create tension. Instead it drifts from moment to moment until the film decides it’s time to wrap things up with an epilogue title card.
With its November 7th release, Everything is likely preparing for a healthy awards campaign. Aside from its leads, who should immediately jump near the top of most peoples’ lists for “most likely to get nominated,” its screenplay, its score, and maybe even the film itself all stand a strong chance of being heavily considered by Academy voters. Even through its blander scenes, Everything is emotionally captivating, likely to bring tears to many movie fans’ eyes. This film is the type of overly positive but thoughtful, life-affirming story that the Oscars often respond to.
Everything is an effective film, one that will both motivate and devastate. It may be phrased most efficiently by David Thewlis’ character, one of Hawking’s professors, saying it’s “a great joy to watch this man defy every expectation, both scientific and personal.” It’s not a movie that will be remembered among the great biopics in film history, but it is genuinely moving and, by its end, endearingly heart-warming.