Stephen Hawking biopic favorite at Oscars despite flaws
For someone searching for the ever-out-of-reach answer to the meaning of life, The Theory of Everything may prove a stepping stone in the eternal quest. Yet for entertainment it certainly falls flat. Do not go into The Theory of Everything looking for a good story, and if you can help it, go in knowing nothing at all about Stephen Hawking. Reading the Wikipedia page on Dr. Hawking’s life, at least in my estimation, essentially makes any element of plot a moot point.
A lack of plot or entertainment seems like the ultimate curse for a film, the basic description of a flop. It would certainly be hard to argue that The Theory of Everything is one such flop in the wake of the film’s many Oscar nominations. It is currently nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screen Play, and Best Original Score. The film tells the story of the legendary Professor Stephen Hawking, played by Eddie Redmayne, starting from his days as a Ph.D. student in physics at the University of Cambridge, to the release of his seminal book, A Brief History of Time. Far from focusing on Dr. Hawking’s professional life, much of the film centers around the blossom and decay of his relationship with his first wife Jane, played by Felicity Jones, while simultaneously dealing with the progression of his motor neuron disease. And if that wasn’t enough material to cover in the film, throw in friends, a choirmaster, a nurse, three children, and the rest of Hawking’s family. Indeed, the film leaves one feeling a bit whiplashed, never quite focusing on one subject long enough to get any real depth.
That is not to say that the film lacks emotion. In fact, the emotions it can elicit might be the most redeeming quality of the film and what showcase it as a piece of art. The characters are complex and rich, and played with extraordinary skill and subtlety. They leave you broken hearted one moment, the next laughing, and finally screaming at the screen for their insanity. One such outburst this author experienced was, “The man can barely eat and you’re having a third child with him? COME ON. BE REASONABLE!” And yet it is exactly these complex questions that make the film a great exploration of the human experience.
Jones and Redmayne deliver through the film’s emotional highs and lows; Felicity Jones deeply engages the audience. As the film progresses, even her most blank look conveys the internal struggle and pain that Jane is experiencing caring for a disabled husband and three young children. Her portrayal is matched by Redmayne who, though confined to a wheelchair for most of the film, is able to portray the depth of a complex (and surprisingly funny) man. But something is missing; in some way or another, the audience’s understanding of the characters feels hindered. If only the actors had some dialogue ...
Looking back on the film overall, one of the most amazing things was how little dialogue there was. Perhaps it was a commentary on the reserve of the English, but the dialogue is so sparse it is hard to believe that these people know each other at all. The lack of dialogue leaves the beginning of the film seeming almost ludicrous, because in the span of three meaningful glances Stephen and Jane have gone from just meeting to dealing with his motor neuron disease and getting married. Such a ridiculous plot jump has not been seen since Princess Anna and Prince Hans, of Frozen fame, got engaged.
On the other hand, from the standpoint of the filmmaking craft, The Theory of Everything is beautifully rich. The director, James Marsh, has a definite affinity for motifs, as they spring up throughout the movie, providing an interesting binding thread. The costuming is also a rather ingenious mechanism of character development. One watches rather helplessly as the flowing, young, dreamy dresses of young Jane morph into the old and frumpy. It is these details that help give the film its artistic quality.
Though containing too many themes, characters, and subject matters to truly deal with any of them, The Theory of Everything provides a sharp look at the meaning of life. It may be totally wrong for a movie night with friends, but perhaps it is a crucial piece of cinema. Be sure to watch it during your next existential crisis.