The Theory of Everything
Directed by: James Marsh
Written by: Anthony McCarten, based on “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen” by Jane Wilde Hawking
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones
Despite some minor shortcomings, The Theory of Everything is a delightful film with two of 2014’s best and most career defining performances. There are many things to praise about this film, but I think it’s important to note; this is much more about Jane Hawking and the unique challenges she faced as she served as Stephen’s companion and caregiver than it is a biopic of Stephen Hawking.
The story opens on a college party where Jane and Stephen meet. In a rather hastily depicted courtship we see the two fall in love and come to face the reality of Stephen’s ALS diagnosis together. Despite being given a devastating life expectancy of just two years, Jane is determined to stay with Stephen. We see the two marry, create a family, and struggle as his illness progresses. Ultimately, The Theory of Everything is a lovely, heartwarming film about two people learning to cope with the devastating effects of chronic illness.
Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones have been nearly non-existent in the Hollywood scene until now, but both of them give performances that meet the caliber of seasoned veterans. Eddie Redmayne takes on this incredibly physical role, transforming Stephen from the initial phases of his disease to his (nearly) present day condition. Early on he demonstrates these small, seemingly inconsequential physical behaviors that are so strongly indicative of the illness that will rule his life; he clumsily drops a pen or spills a cup of tea, his hands begins to buckle and contort as he writes equations on a chalk board. Redmayne’s ability to transform his body through his posture strained speech pattern is a remarkable feat worthy of the recognition he is receiving.
Eddie Redmayne has an exceptional ability to convey profound emotional depth and complexity despite Stephen’s diminishing ability to communicate. He is able to say so much with just the slight furrow of his brow, a gaze in a particular direction. Redmayne’s best scene in The Theory of Everything takes place during a dinner party. Though he is not yet wheelchair bound, the stairs in his home are an insurmountable obstacle. As Stephen painfully drags himself up each step he looks to the top of the staircase and his 1 year old son is standing at the guard gate: Stephen is literally dragging himself away from the lives of his peers and towards an infantile state in which he could be as physically helpless as his young son. It’s devastating but brilliantly performed.
As impressive as Eddie Redmayne was I think it was Felicity Jones that really locked this film together. Jane is the less ‘flashy’ performance, but the far more interesting character. Like Redmayne, she has this remarkable talent for saying so much by doing so little. In an early scene after Jane learns about Stephen’s diagnosis the two are playing a game of croquet when she begins to observe the way he has begun to limp, the contortion of his hands; when the camera cuts back to Jane you see her face fighting a flurry of emotions that threaten to overcome her. It’s as if she’s watching her future play out in front of her eyes. In a matter of seconds she has swallowed the terror of this realization and confronts the situation with bravery and strength. It’s transformative.
There is a scene in the final third of the film that is career-making for both Redmayne and Jones. Stephen has just had a tracheotomy and has lost the ability to speak. Determined to aid in his ability to communicate Jane comes to him with a spelling board, a way for him to articulate his thoughts using visual cues. Jane explains this method to him slowly and deliberately, determined to keep him positive despite the anxiety hiding behind her resolve. As Jane reads colors of the board it is clear that Stephen is not going to engage. His gaze at his wife is full of guilt and grief; he is mourning the loss of his speech and pitying this woman that now has to serve as his caretaker and translator. Jane processes her frustration with Stephen by intensely reading the colors on the spelling board until her grief overcomes her and the two breakdown in tears. It was an incredibly human moment where all of the expectations and frustrations that lie between the person in need and their caretaker fall to the floor and what is left is empathy in its purest form.
Technically speaking, The Theory of Everything is delightful. The cinematography is lovely; with tight shots and selective focus used to expose every shadow and angle of Stephen’s ravaged body. Finally, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s sweeping score is elegantly woven throughout the story.
My frustrations with The Theory of Everything lie almost exclusively with the screenplay and story structure. Their courtship was paced far too quickly, giving us very little time to appreciate the connection that the two shared outside of his diagnosis. As the story continues the pace gets exceedingly slower, perhaps bogged down by the focus on Stephen’s career developments. This inconsistent pacing left me feeling disconnected from the story and less invested in its ending.
Final Verdict: The Theory of Everything is a well put together story with two incredible performances, but I didn’t LOVE the film. Though strong in its technical aesthetics, The Theory of Everything lacked originality. A Beautiful Mind told a very similar story in the same fashion in 2002; it was a masterpiece then, but taking a different approach in telling the story of Stephen and Jane Hawking may have rendered a more powerful, memorable film.
Awards Potential: The Theory of Everything is nominated for 5 Oscars: Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Score. After taking the Golden Globe, SAG Award, and BAFTA for Best Actor it is clear that Eddie Redmayne is the likely winner of this year’s Best Actor category. I would LOVE to see Felicity Jones win but it looks like Best Actress will be going to Julianne Moore for Still Alice.There’s a strong possibility to see Jóhann Jóhannsson win for Best Score and/or Anthony McCarten for Best Original Screenplay.