15 February 2015

Well, Not Quite Everything

"The Theory of Everything"     ★★★

A Review by Kevin Powers

My lack of certainty about whether or not I would like director James Marsh's Stephen Hawking biopic "The Theory of Everything" led it to last place in my rankings of the Best Picture Oscar nominees before I even saw it. Having said that, it's still in eighth place. 

It's not a bad movie. In fact, I was quite moved by it. It's gorgeously composed, boasting top-notch cinematography, editing, and production design. The score by Johann Johannsson is the best of the year, and fans of the film should be proud when it wins that category. 

"The Theory of Everything" is a movie that wants to have everything, to be about everything, featuring a character in Hawking who wants to solve everything, yet, like its hero, it doesn't succeed. And the movie itself is just way too nice.

Stephen Hawking (Oscar frontrunner, Eddie Redmayne) was an awkward, skinny Ph.D. student at Cambridge in 1963. At a party with classmate and best friend, Brian (Harry Lloyd), Hawking meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). She's way too pretty for him, but he has a way about him, a confidence in his first words to her where you know they will fall for each other. 

The early scenes are the best the movie has to offer. Stephen asks Jane over for dinner at his parents' place, where he asks her to a ball. Then, that scene at the ball. It is beautifully made, rich in color palette with bright blues and fireworks and rotating camera moves highlighting the daze of young love. 

Then, of course, Hawking is diagnosed with a rare early onset ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), also then called Motor Neuron Disease, and given two years to live. Well, we all know he's still kicking, so that's not going to grab us. But what does is Jane's willingness to love Stephen no matter what, to help him through his medical problems, so his genius can come through. She does. And it does. They build a life together, have children, ups and downs, as way more than two years pass. 

The movie, based on Jane Hawking's own memoir, surely paints her as something of a saint. Even when her musician "friend"/church choir director, Jonathan (Charlie Cox), comes in to help out with Stephen's care (he refuses doctors and live-in nursing) and a hint of sexual tension is brought into the mix, the movie sidesteps the hard realities of what this story most likely was and makes it all nice and easy for the audience. 

I, for one, want to know how hard Stephen and Jane's life really was. I mean, where's the real tough stuff? We certainly see pain and discomfort of the physical kind, but the emotions, when they are realized, are too little too late. 

Now, don't get me wrong. There are points when I was quite touched and even a bit teary, mostly due to the brilliant use of grainy home video-style cinematography blended with that just gorgeous score. There are scenes of true emotional power, especially towards the end, in a scene where Stephen (now equipped with his famous talking computer system) tells Jane "Thank You" and "Sorry" and lets her in on his plan to move to America. Then, later, another scene has Hawking speaking to a group of students and colleagues in the 80s. This is a powerful scene that is truly touching. 

The Oscar-nominated performances from both Redmayne and Jones are worthy, especially Redmayne. This is one of those full-on physical feats of acting in the vein of Daniel Day-Lewis' work as Christy Brown in Jim Sheridan's "My Left Foot" (1989). What he does with his body, his mouth, his speech...it is miraculous to behold. You sit there after it's over and converse about it and all you can muster is "How the hell did he do that?" Felicity Jones is an actress I haven't seen much. Here she is as solid as her character demands. She is sincere as well. Jane is a woman who chose a difficult path and rose to the challenge. Jones embodies this. 

Stephen Hawking is seen here as a man who wanted nothing more than to create a theory, an equation that could deliver the answer to how time began. How did it really all start? Black holes, quantum theory, relativity, it's all here. But not really. I desired more of "A Beautiful Mind" approach. I wanted more of what was happening in this brilliant man's head.

Jane Hawking was a woman willing to sacrifice her life, even her religious faith, in support of the man she so loved. "The Theory of Everything" made me believe that. Yet, I didn't feel like I got the whole story. 

Granted, Stephen and Jane Hawking are both still alive. They have grown children, even grandchildren. Stephen's work is not yet done. Neither is Jane's. Part of me wishes this movie hadn't been made yet. I hope, no doubt, that both of them live on for years more, but I wonder what this might have been a few more years down the line. When creative license could've matched hard truth. 


  1. Great review, I liked this quite a bit more than you did, but I'm glad you still enjoyed it too!

    1. Much obliged. It's a solid movie. Just wish it had gone a bit deeper.

  2. What a great review! Thoughtful, balanced, and very smart. I'm thinking about your point about it being "too nice," sidestepping tough complexities. I wonder if this is a pitfall of making a biopic about people who are still alive, and probably very invested in how they are portrayed? I don't know.

    Another blogger said he wished the film had delved a bit more into the physics, giving us a better sense of the scope of Hawking's work and ideas. I wonder if that was one of the problems here. They tackled something that was so broad in scope in terms of characters, emotional dynamics, and intellectual ideas.

    Looking forward to seeing this but keeping my expectations modest.

    1. Thanks so much. I think it's very safe to say that making a biopic about someone still living (and working!) is touchy. It can be done beautifully and inventively, e.g., Todd Hayne's Dylan biopic "I'm Not There."

      I agree with this other blogger. I wanted more of his brain, the only part of him that kept working. Ron Howard did a great job of this with the John Nash biopic "A Beautiful Mind."

      It's worth a watch for sure. Many are getting more out of it than I did.

  3. I had read he was tougher on his family than this shows. I get it is a biopic of living people, and I was shocked when told me that she, Jane, wrote the book it was based on. I agree with the idea that more of the physics or something should have been spotlighted because I don't really think the movie foes a good job of explaining or showing just how brilliant he is.

    1. It just should have done more, I think. It's not bad movie at all. It's beautiful, in fact, at certain points. I don't know...

  4. "I, for one, want to know how hard Stephen and Jane's life really was. I mean, where's the real tough stuff? We certainly see pain and discomfort of the physical kind, but the emotions, when they are realized, are too little too late." Exactly.