The Theory of Everything is about a man in a wheelchair. To be more accurate, it’s about a genius in a wheelchair, a man who can outsmart nearly all of us, but who also has had to overcome more adversity then… all of us.

The real essence of this story is that it’s a very unusual love story in a very strange environment, a very strange sort of landscape, and that is I think the abiding theme of the film. It is how these two characters, these two real people transcend all the complications and curveballs that life throws at them.

The Theory of Everything is a great film. The scope of the film was perfect, allowing the film to explore the relationship of Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane, in the context of his rise to prominence in a meaningful way.   Which can be called truly magnificent.

Naturally Hawking’s story is inspiring – the way he’s battled motor neuron disease over the past 50 years and defied the odds not only to survive, but thrive. I feel that in playing Hawking, Eddie Redmayne more than rises to the challenge of portraying the man’s gradual physical deterioration but also conveying the spark of mental acuity that has remained, and marked all of Hawking’s important work. Nothing the 32-year-old actor has done has ever suggested he had this sort of complexity in him. It’s an impressive performance, so much so that it makes you wish it were in the service of stronger material.

“The Theory of Everything” is based on “Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen,” the memoir by Hawking’s first wife, Jane.  There is a feeling of tastefulness which I find permeates the proceedings, as if everyone wanted to be overly respectful toward these people, and their life, and the access they provided, at the expense of revelations that might have seemed inappropriate or startling or, heaven forbid, thought-provoking.

The Theory of Everything maps the physicist’s life from the moment he met Jane to modern day. Despite following a conventional biopic formula, the movie manages to avoid coming off as just another generic biopic—in part because the subject is so unique, in another because he isn’t an artist and doesn’t succumb to drugs and disease, and in yet another because director James Marsh executes the material so well.

It is possible that there is both a sad and frustrating irony in “The Theory of Everything”: it’s a biopic about one of the most brilliant people in the history of the planet, the renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking – a man famous for thinking in boldly innovative ways – yet I found that his story has been told in the safest and most conventional method imaginable.   Yet director Marsh has made a strongly acted, handsomely crafted film that nonetheless feels bland and unsatisfying. It falls into the trap that so many biopics do: It hits all the key moments in the life of the author of “A Brief History of Time” and skims the surface of a complicated existence without digging deeper, without taking chances. Everyone involved does everything they should, and the result is just fine.

The Theory of Everything is beautifully shot and expertly directed, bringing to life a pretty extraordinary story. If it has one major fault it is that the science gets put to the backburner—while the movie didn’t need to be overburdened by Hawking’s theories and formulas, it rarely dives deep into the subject’s mind. Given that the film is based on a book by Hawking’s first wife, Jane Hawking, it’s understandable that the science is given the backburner to their relationship, but it’s the science for what Hawking is known for.

The love and support we see from Jane Hawing are timeless; as portrayed by a fresh-faced Felicity Jones, Jane is a woman of both grace and strength. And what she went through in taking care of him while raising their three children and trying to focus on her own intellectual pursuits must have been exhausting, and often discouraging. It must have threatened to swallow her whole. We see very little of that here. This Jane is a saint.   The early scenes between Redmayne and Jones positively crackle. There’s an instant connection when they spy each other across a crowded room at a party at Cambridge in 1963. He’s fumbling and funny, she’s pretty and perky. He’s studying cosmology; she’s studying medieval Spanish poetry. He’s an atheist; she’s a devout follower of the Church of England. But they’re mutually curious and seem to bring out the best in one another. Their preliminary days include a romantic scene involving the little-known properties of Tide laundry detergent.

Everything seems possible for these two young and brilliant minds, until Hawking experiences a series of increasingly clumsy moments, followed by a serious spill on the campus courtyard. Then comes the diagnosis at age 21 that he has motor neuron disease, or ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The doctor also gives him just two years to live. Hawking tries to withdraw but Jane won’t have it; she forces her way into his life and insists she’s ready for whatever comes their way. They quickly marry, and eventually have three children.

But as Stephen’s body weakens and the family has to make continual adjustments to his physical status – including the famous computerized voice he creates when he no longer can speak, which is the source of some of the film’s precious few laughs – his mind stays sharp. He continues his pursuit of the one simple, elegant equation that will explain everything in the universe.

Eventually, “The Theory of Everything” reaches a point where it toys with a challenging notion: the possibility that Jane and Hawking each had dalliances on the side with the other’s tacit approval, once it became clear that their marriage had changed irreparably. Jane sought solace with Jonathan Hellyer Jones, the hunky, widowed choir director with big, brown puppy-dog eyes who served as Hawking’s caretaker, and the family’s de facto husband and father figure. Hawking later had the pleasure of spending time with the beautiful and vibrant therapist Elaine, who flirted with Stephen and even leafed through the pages of a Penthouse magazine for his perusal.

But the film glosses over these extra-marital relationships and their resolution with little muss, fuss, or emotional distress. It tiptoes toward the fire and then scurries back. It’s unfortunately an apt metaphor for the film as a whole.  In a final scene, the film rewinds to the moment Stephen and Jane first met, mirroring Stephen’s wish that he would like to reverse time itself to see what happened at the beginning of the universe. The closing text states that Jane and Jonathan later married, and that Jane and Stephen remain close friends to this day.

Filmmaker Marsh had studied archival images to give the film its authenticity, stating, “When we had photographs and documentary footage of Stephen that related to our story, we tried to reproduce them as best we could.” I have found that Redmayne met with Hawking himself, commenting, “Even now, when he’s unable to move, you can still see such effervescence in his eyes.” And described portraying Hawking on-screen as a “hefty” challenge, adding that, “The real problem with making a film is of course you don’t shoot chronologically. So it was about having to really try and chart his physical deterioration [so] you can jump into it day-to-day, whilst at the same time keeping this spark and wit and humor that he has.” He has done a remarkable job in undertaking his portrayal of Hawking. Redmayne spent six months researching Hawking’s life, watching every interview he could find on him, What Redmayne had to do was not easy. “He had to take on enormous amounts of difficult preparation as well as embracing the difficult physicality of the role. It’s not just doing a disability. It’s actually charting the course of an illness that erodes the body, and the mind has to project out from that erosion,” Hawking gave him his blessing and also revealed that, “[Hawking’s] response was very positive, so much so that he offered to lend his voice, the real voice that he uses. The voice we hear in the latter part of the story is in fact Stephen’s actual electronic voice as he uses it”. During editing filmmakers tried to remake Hawking’s synthesized voice, but it didn’t turn out as they wanted. However, after Stephen Hawking said to the filmmakers that he enjoyed the film so much, he granted them permission to use his own synthesized voice which is used in the final film.

The Theory of Everything has received positive reviews from critics – particularly for Redmayne’s acting and Delhomme’s cinematography. With one reviewer writing that “Redmayne towers: this is an astonishing, genuinely visceral performance which bears comparison with Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot.” I believe the film is also tremendously moving and inspirational, and it has also been called “A solid, duly moving account of their complicated relationship, spanning roughly 25 years, and made with impeccable professional polish”, and with the cinematography as having “lush, intricately lit compositions” and adding “a splendor that keeps the film consistently watchable.” Another positive review of the film states that, “In its potted appraisal of Hawking’s cosmology, The Theory of Everything bends over backwards to speak to the layman, and relies on plenty of second-hand inspiration.

The film was not without its detractors. Some criticized Marsh’s focus on Hawking’s romantic life.  It has been claimed that James Marsh’s biopic salutes the famous physicist’s commitment, but falls short of exploring his brilliant ideas.” And noted that “the movie doesn’t deserve any prizes for its drive-by muddling of Dr. Hawking’s scientific work, leaving viewers in the dark about exactly why he is so famous. Instead of showing how he undermined traditional notions of space and time, it panders to religious sensibilities about what his work does or does not say about the existence of God, which in fact is very little.”

The Theory of Everything received several awards and nominations following its release. Some include: At the 87th Academy Awards, it has been nominated in the categories of Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score. The film was nominated for ten British Academy Film Awards, five Critic Choice Movie Awards and three Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Alessandro Sicuro

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