A Brief History, by David Bax
James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything tells the life story of Stephen Hawking but, other than the broad strokes, it has little in common with Errol Morris’ cleverer and more elegant A Brief History of Time, which covered the same subject matter in documentary form. Where Morris’ 1991 film was as much about Hawking the man as it was about his work and ideas, Marsh chooses to view Hawking’s life as a story of a marriage, working from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten that adapts the memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Hawking’s first wife, Jane Hawking. In the early going, it’s a good perspective to adopt but, as Hawking’s disease starts to take over his life, so too do the biopic conventions start to take over The Theory of Everything.
We meet Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) the night he meets Jane (Felicity Jones). They encounter one another at a party and spend the evening sitting in the stairwell, talking excitedly about their differences. Stephen is the empirical-minded atheist. Jane is the art-loving churchgoer. Both are fiercely intelligent in ways that are sexier than anything you’ll see on premium cable. It’s not very long after that, about the time he has become captivated by a new hypothesis about how to explain everything in the universe, that he begins to display symptoms of ALS. Marsh relies on our knowledge of Hawking’s eventual illness, dropping hints in the form of fumbled teacups and slight stutter-steps that are offensively tawdry. Jane stays with Stephen through it all and the tale becomes one of how to negotiate a marriage that is profoundly imbalanced. Anything necessitating physical exertion falls to Jane while the eyes of the world increasingly turn to Stephen, who seems more than willing to bend toward the attention like a flower seeking the sun.
Stephen and Jane’s courtship takes up the first and most intriguing act. The filmmakers and actors are noticeably inspired by it. Redmayne and Jones burn while Marsh and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme show us how the world looks to people who are in the midst of falling love. There’s a carefree symmetry, colors are in harmony and people move about the couple as if they’re executing some grand choreography.
It’s particularly disheartening, then, when the beauty fades. Stephen becoming more and more relegated to the interior of his head should provide more opportunities for flights of imagination. When he was pre-symptomatic, he pondered his theory of the universe while observing the way the contents of a cup of tea continue to spin after the stirring spoon has been removed. But these sorts of visual analogues of his mindscape dissipate as the film goes on. We end up seeing much less of the world as Stephen experiences it and much more of how the world sees Stephen. But we already knew how we saw him before we went to the movie.
The Theory of Everything is a showcase for its two young and extraordinary leads. Jones plays Jane as a woman who takes the commitments of being a wife seriously but also asks us to take seriously the difficulties of being a human being. As for Redmayne, I think there’s a certain contingent of cool, smart teenage girls who will be putting his picture up in their lockers by the end of the semester. But all of these talents are in service of a film that takes a fascinating and singular life and crushes into an all too predictable form.