Dir. James Marsh. UK. 2014

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Acclaimed physicist and cosmologist Dr. Stephen Hawking has devoted his life to the study of space-time, black holes, and the origin of the universe. Whether the universe is ultimately knowable through a series of mathematical equations is as yet undetermined, but it forms the basis of his lifelong goal of finding what he calls “the theory of everything.” Written by Anthony McCarten and based on the book by Jane Hawking, James Marsh’s film, also titled The Theory of Everything, traces Hawking’s life from his days at Cambridge University in the 1960s, his lifelong struggle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and the ups and downs of his marriage to Jane Wilde.

The Theory of Everything begins with Hawking, in a masterful physical performance by Eddie Redmayne, as a young university physics student who impresses his professor, Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis) and meets a more artistically-inclined student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), who is studying medieval Spanish poetry. We learn fairly quickly that they have a fundamental disagreement. She is religious while he is an atheist who tells her “I have a problem with the celestial dictator premise,” though his atheism, for the most part, is glossed over in the film. Before their courtship gets off the ground, however, Hawking’s problem with coordination becomes more and more obvious.

When he loses his balance and collapses on the pavement, he is taken to the hospital where he is told that he is suffering from a motor neuron disease, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which will become progressively worse to the point where he will no longer be able to speak, swallow, function on his own, and even breathe. Despite his failing vision and the fact that he is given only two years to live, Hawking sets his mind to his doctoral thesis on the question of “Time” and receives his PhD while still in his twenties. Meanwhile his illness progresses to the point where he has to receive a tracheotomy to stay alive, even though it means he can no longer speak.

The worsening of his physical condition, however, only makes Jane’s commitment to him that much stronger and they are soon married, a marriage that will last thirty years and produce three children. Fortunately, a computer program called Equalizer designed by Walter Woltosz, allows Hawking to “talk” by use of a speech synthesizer. Though he is now confined to a wheel chair and his body movements are almost completely constricted, he is able to deliver lectures on subjects he has devoted his life to with the use of the speech device.

Jane remains steadfast in her love and support over the years, but the burden of care eventually takes its toll and she is drawn to Jonathan (Charlie Cox), the director of the church choir, while Hawking develops a growing relationship with his nurse Elaine (Maxine Peake). Hawking’s intellectual achievements are enormous given his physical condition, yet The Theory of Everything hardly lives up to his inspiration, maintaining a bland level of niceness throughout and providing only a superficial understanding of the main characters. It is a safe, standard-issue biopic that does not probe very deeply, smoothes over conflicts and unpopular ideas, and stays away from any form of unpleasantness.

While the film covers a considerable length of time, the characters do not seem to age and the stresses and strains that led to the unraveling of Hawking’s marriage are not depicted or explained. The film also glorifies the scientific model without questioning whether or not a so-called theory of everything can tell us anything about the underlying nature of reality. Though Redmayne disappears into his character, and captures Hawking’s facial expressions and physical disabilities with amazing skill, Marsh’s banal, worshipful biopic leaves a black hole where satisfaction ought to be.


Howard Schumann

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