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The Theory of Everything

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Nov 7, 2014
Eddie Redmayne stars in 'The Theory of Eveything'
Eddie Redmayne stars in 'The Theory of Eveything'  (Source:Universal Pictures)

The "theory of everything" referred to by the title of this biopic about cosmologist Stephen Hawking is something of a holy grail for physicists of different persuasions -- not just cosmologists, but particle physicists and theoretical physicists, too. It's an equation that would tie together the different mathematical models describing the very tiny world of quantum effects and the enormous world of the universe at its largest scale. (It would also presumably explain gravity, but that's a different movie.)

No one -- not even Stephen Hawking, reputed to be the smartest man in the world -- has yet devised such an equation, and the question of its very existence falls somewhere between hoped for and presupposed. But whether or not that theory is ever delineated in physics, the more immediate problem is that something along the same lines -- some unifying theory or thesis -- is needed for this film.

Playing like a Disney-fied version of Hawking's life story, "The Theory of Everything" has everything you'd look for from a period piece (vintage cars, lovely costuming, a scene set aboard a train, cold blue light that warms as the years go by). It's also freighted with all the conventions of a bio-pic: Time is compressed (how much Hawking feel about screenwriting's own form of time dilation when it comes to his life?), some facts are ignored, other facts are emphasized.

But what this movie lacks is coherence. Is this a story about how the most famous physicist in history answers challenges to his professed atheism? Is it about Hawking's admirable triumph over amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a degenerative condition of the voluntary nervous system that usually kills those it afflicts in just a couple of years? (At this point, Hawking has lived with the disease for over half a century.) Is it the story of a scientific drama? Yes on all counts, but only to a point. Mostly, this is a domestic drama about Hawking (played with zealous accuracy by Eddie Redmayne) and and his wife, Jane (Felicity Jones, who brings nuance and layers to her role).

One might be tempted to say that this movie posits love as a universal force and an ever-reliable source for meaning, and that might be accurate, sort of; it's true enough that Jane and Hawking seem to have remained close even after he left her for his nurse, Elaine (Maxine Peake), and she re-married, to a man she met in a church choir. Friendship, then, might be a good theory of everything; romantic love, while nice for a time, seems to suffer the same heat death as everything else.

But the film fails to clarify anything. Just why does Hawking leave Jane? The best guesses you can make from what's we're shown here is that it's because Elaine "worships the ground under his wheels," or else it's because she's such a pragmatic, earthily joyous sort that she's a better fit temperamentally. (To be fair, any woman who'll help a guy look through his porno mags has got to be a rare treasure, indeed.) Hawking, the expert on black holes, is something of black hole here: The film never quite gets (or offers) a handle on him.

Jane is a different story, which might have something to do with the fact that the film is an adaptation of her memoir. We see Jane's struggles as she cares for husband and children (and he's as rambunctious as the kids), as well as pursue her own career. Jones puts across the physical and emotional toll this takes over time. We see how the choir master -- his name is Jonathan, and he's played by Charlie Cox -- inspires in her a growing longing and appreciation for a man's physicality and masculine vigor. Both Jane and Jonathan struggle for a good long time to contain their developing feelings, and Hawking himself might have some inkling of Jane's needs and Jonathan's underlying sentiments. (One gets something of a hint that Hawking might even approve of the idea of the two of them making each other happy -- not a bad philosophy to have, given that Jonathan is depicted as filling the role of helper for the Hawking family. It's also not a bad means of entertaining the theme that the real world demands all sorts of family structures for practical as well as emotional reasons.)

At then end, it's hard to say just what this movie has been about. It plays like a collection of famous Hawking trivia; we hear about the bets he makes with fellow physicist Kip Thorne, and we get bits and pieces of his work on subjects like time, the Big Bang, and black holes. In the end, this remains an actor's project, rather than a story on film; Redmayne adopts Hawking's famous posture, slouched sideway in the wheelchair, his head canted to the side, with a mischievous grin and a glint in his eye. It's a marvelous bit of mimicry that doesn't allow us any deeper insight into the man himself. But there are moments of whimsical levity that make the film a joy to experience -- as when Hawking gets his famous electronic voice. His wife is dismayed that the voice has an American accent; Hawking himself is shown testing it out with the lyrics to a child's song, the same one HAL-9000 has occasion, in "2001: A Space Odyssey," to recite.

As patchwork, this film has its charms. As biopic, well, it wouldn't pass muster before a doctoral committee. There's devotion to source material here, but no real theory -- or dramatic fulfillment -- to speak of.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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