The Theory of Everything’s Brief History of Stephen Hawking
by Matthew Cabe
Arguably the most unavoidable limitation filmmakers must cope with—outside of money—is that of time constraints. When it comes to conventional films, choices must be made to contain, simplify, and unite events into a neat, ingestible narrative. Countless moments, no matter how minor or significant, are cut if they stray from or add nothing to a film’s progression toward its ends.
The biopic favors least from this limitation, especially considering that the subjects tend to be notable persons whose lives are already a well-documented part of public consciousness. In that sense, even the most highly regarded biopics suffer from the disease of synopsis; it’s simply impossible to lump everything—let alone the peaks and valleys of a person’s life—into a 2-hour film and still leave room to delve into the meaning of it all. In short, a reliance on what is already known about the person is used to fill gaps that were too wide to cross in a medium that champions 90-120 minute retellings.
And so what becomes evident early on in The Theory of Everything, the biopic on famed theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, are the choices made with regard to where the movie’s focus would lie. Quickly flicked away are notions of Hawking’s professional achievements; audiences are far too dumb to fathom such complex theories on time, space, and infinity. They’ll be mentioned or referred to, of course, because Hawking is non-existent without them, but centering the story on his mind was probably out of the question from the start. He’s a smart guy. Move on.
Next to be whisked aside is the possibility of a deeply personal look into the disease that robbed Hawking of nearly everything save his mind. His phsyical transformation, for lack of a better word, must be shown since he somehow isn’t as inspirational without it, but hints of the emotional devastation or against-all-odds defiance of prognosis was, at best, included merely for heartstrings tugging. He’s a smart guy with ALS. Isn’t that sad? But quickly note his resilience. Isn’t that reassuring? Move on.
What the the film and it’s title really refer to, then, is Hawking’s seemingly ordinary and relatable personal life. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since his aforementioned desired profession isn’t cinematic in the way Johnny Cash’s or Ray Charles’s were. The film even makes reference to its choice during a scene in which Hawking’s father (played by Simon McBurney) pleads with him to spend the money needed for a live-in nurse so the burden of care might be lifted from his wife Jane (Felicity Jones). Hawking explains that they can’t afford a live-in nurse. “You are world famous!” the elder Hawking declares. Stephen wryly retorts, “For black holes, not rock concerts.” Move on, dad.
Working from a screenplay partly developed out of Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity, director James Marsh, who’s known best for his 2008 Academy Award-winning Man on Wire documentary, selects intimate moments from Stephen and Jane’s relationship to weave together a touching story that, like Interstellar, purports the idea that only love is capable of transcending time and space, as well as explaining them to boot.
Speaking of time, the film opens in 1963 when Hawking was still pursuing his doctorate at Cambridge, and suggests a recognizable post-adolescence that places him within a nerdified Beatnik social circle that holds science, not art, as its god. Portrayed by Eddie Redmayne—and despite my criticisms, an astonishing, devoted portrayal it is—Hawking enters full of life, a little awkward, and brilliant enough to answer nine of his professor’s ten impossible questions only a couple hours before they’re due.
It’s in the first 20 to 30 minutes that Hawking’s genius is given it’s chance to shine. Marsh films Redmayne in front of a chalkboard working out nightmarishly long equations. Young Hawking attends lectures on black holes that instantaneously spark revolutionary ideas within him, and pages of his doctoral thesis are inserted into frame as his committee of professors grovel at his feet. But that’s it. The remainder of the film is divided between the resolute love he and Jane feel for one another and the care-taking that drives Jane into the arms of another man (Charlie Cox) and Hawking into the arms of another, more affectionate caretaker (Maxine Peake).
Somewhere within these hazards of love the couple spawn three children, Jane acquires her own degrees, Hawking writes and publishes a book, and his wheelchair is upgraded to include a computer that speaks for him. But the proceedings are handled with such thoughtlessness that providing any of it with substantiality is impossible.
What’s left, in the end, is a couple marveling at what they’ve created (their three children) despite everything. The moment is meant to be a miraculous triumph of the human spirit in the face of horrific adversity that mirrors our own minor accomplishments amid life’s hardships. But the championing is cheap and pandering, as if the film’s only point is to prove that a need for normalcy (i.e. a family and stable home life) will always be possible because Stephen Hawking, some guy who couldn’t even move or speak on his own, once lived and managed to accomplish it.
What’s worse though is how this belittling moment of triumph is incapable of feeling grandiose or heartwarming or redeeming because everything that should make it so was on display all too briefly, without depth, and stretched so thin from the onset that the only possible response is to shrug and move on.