Sunday, February 1, 2015

Unremarkable Romance, Specific Disease: The Theory Of Everything Has A (Surprisingly) Loose Hold On The Audience!

The Good: Amazing performances, Good direction
The Bad: Unremarkable plot, Relationship story is not developed sufficiently before the conflict
The Basics: The Theory Of Everything is based on the true story of the lives of Stephen and Jane Hawking, but the story translates surprisingly poorly to the film . . . despite great direction and impressive performances.

2014 was a good year for Brits and biographies, at least during Oscar Pandering Season. The one I missed and actually missed (until tonight) was The Theory Of Everything and it is a movie that, I suspect, is getting more praise due to the performances and the human subject of the film, as opposed to the inherent quality of the work. Biography films are tough to discuss objectively because, more often than not, one wants to defend the individual who is the subject of the film, as opposed to discussing them as a character in a movie. The moment a film is called “based on the life of” [insert name of real person here], it becomes a work of art, though and (in my set of standards) is subject to the same standards as every other work of art of that medium. So, while I have profound respect for Professor Stephen Hawking and learned quite a bit about the love, strength and integrity of Jane Hawking from The Theory Of Everything, the characters of Jane and Stephen in the film have a pretty unremarkable and unbelievable arc.

At the center of my issue with The Theory Of Everything is the idea that truth may well be stranger than fiction. As they say in Magnolia (reviewed here!), there are things that, if we saw them in a movie, we would never believe. The Theory Of Everything may have fidelity to the truth, but it does not play as a particularly satisfying or realistic relationship; in short, the movie is a relationship that (as presented) is built entirely on love at first sight. So, the relationship endurance of Jane and Stephen seems built on a particularly flimsy foundation.

In 1963 at Cambridge, Stephen Hawking is working to produce for his dissertation, under the guidance of Dennis Sciama. One night, he is out with his friends when he sees Jane and Jane sees him. They strike up a conversation and discover they have remarkably little in common (she is interested in discussing theology with him, he denies the existence of god). After listening to a lecture on black holes, Stephen comes up with his grand equation, theorizing about the true nature of black holes. On his way out of one of the buildings, his legs abruptly stop working and he collapses. Stephen’s collapse comes from a degenerative neurological disease and he is given an estimate of only two years to live by his doctor.

Jane draws Stephen out and marries him before he can slip away too far. Soon, though, Stephen’s physical condition begins to deteriorate (after he and Jane start to have children), though his theories become recognized by experts in the fields he theorizes (a Soviet expert in black holes finds himself swayed by Hawkings’s theories). As Stephen’s condition worsens, Jane takes solace in the church choir and a friend she makes there. While Jane is spending time with Jonathan, Stephen is at a concert and he collapses, slipping into a coma. After much debate, Jane authorizes a tracheotomy and when Stephen comes out of the coma, their relationship becomes impossibly strained.

Jane, in The Theory Of Everything, stays in the relationship an impossibly long time given the tenuous ties that bind the two (other than legal marriage). In other words, there is little presented in The Theory Of Everything that would support a real romantic relationship between Jane and Stephen, save love at first sight. That sort of passion fades and in The Theory Of Everything, the viewer is not treated to extensive discussions, backstory, or common interests that make their romantic relationship believable and the extents Jane goes to before Stephen’s condition becomes unbearable seem probable. Yes, reality says the one thing, but . . . well, if we saw it in a movie . . .

That said, the reason to watch the film is the acting, for sure. Director James Marsh makes a beautiful-looking film and gets impressive performances out of all involved. Of course, getting a bad performance out of Felicity Jones seems like more of a challenge than getting an amazing performance from her! After all, anyone who can take one of the most minor roles in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (reviewed here!) and make her a presence on the screen simply by smiling has some real gravitas and presence. Jones has the ability to express complex emotions (passion, fear, concern) with only her eyes and Marsh captures her range exceptionally well.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of James Marsh with The Theory Of Everything is the performance he gets out of Eddie Redmayne. Redmayne was entirely forgettable in My Week With Marilyn (reviewed here!) and played Marius in Les Miserables (reviewed here!) with a character-killing blandness that was often overlooked because of the focus on the glaringly bad casting of Russell Crowe. In The Theory Of Everything, though, Redmayne is amazing. In the early scenes, he and Felicity Jones have great on-screen chemistry. As the movie comes on, Redmayne is able to present a caliber of physical acting that is unparalleled. He plays the physical degeneration of Stephen Hawking to such a perfect level that it is unsurprising that Hawking has said he felt like he was watching himself in some key scenes!

But performance and direction are almost exclusively what The Theory Of Everything is banking on. The relationship between Jane and Stephen is unremarkable in so many ways . . . outside who he is and how much she endures. That might make for a tumultuous life and one that has some moments of great love in real life, but it results in a movie with a comparatively low “wow” factor.

For other works with Felicity Jones, please check out my reviews of:
Like Crazy


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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