Where there is life there is hope

Where there is life there is hope

There’s a tendency with bio-pics to tread softly. Some of the most complicated people have been reduced to vessels for matters of the heart, while their greatest achievements are only paid lip-service. There are, for example, many films about great artists where we never see them hold a brush. Does portraying the great spirits of modern history in such a way do them a great dishonour, or is it intentional artistic direction to pull us closer to the emotional core of the story?

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING brings us to Cambridge in the early 1960’s. It’s there that a dervish of a young student in theoretical physics named Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) began to make his mark. He is able to answer the questions that nobody else can, and often finds his way to keep up with his larger, more strapping contemporaries in clubs and athletics. His character and brilliance is soon identified by his professor Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis), who begins nurturing his talent in the hopes that it will lead to the next great idea.

One evening at a house party, Hawking is introduced to an arts student named Jane Wild (Felicity Jones). While the two disagree on a great many things – namely the existence of God – they get on well and have a wonderful chemistry, and as you might have guessed, they fall in love.

However, there is a hitch. Stephen has noticed his motor skills beginning to fail him. He misses steps, loses his grip on objects, and is prone to other such moments of klutziness. After a particularly hard fall, Hawking is diagnosed in hospital with a degenerative disease. At the age of 21, Hawking is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and given a prognosis of two years to live. While this at first leaves him despondent and unsure of his future, it spurs Jane to stay with him and be by his side.

They marry before the disease can advance, seemingly giving Hawking a shot in the arm where all things are considered (as bold declarations of love can sometimes do). He finishes his thesis on the singularity of Space-Time and makes a deep impact on the scientific community. And while his relationship with Jane seems to be the facilitator, it’s also tested with increasing severity as Hawking’s condition worsens through the years…which as we well know, was many more than the two years doctors first gave him.

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING will not be mistaken for the next great entry in cinema, let us be clear about that. It often skims the surface when it should be diving into the depths, and when it comes to the work of Stephen Hawking – those depths are incredibly deep. However, one must take into consideration the intent of staying in the shallow end.

One of the most interesting things about THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING is warm aesthetic director James Marsh brings to the trying tale. It doesn’t take long in the film for the impish and charming Redmayne to miss a gesture and knock over a cup. At that moment, we get a clear reminder of what we’re in for: this loveable nerd is going to fall prey to terrible circumstances, and the young lady who cares for him is about to be tested more than she anticipates. It sets the stage for “misery porn” of the highest order. Worse, it’s misery porn wrapped around the most advanced levels of theoretical physics. So Marsh keeps us in it by giving the look of the film a glow. He floods many scenes with warm incandescence or vast amounts of daylight. He sparks vast amounts of catch lights in the eyes of his young stars, and keeps the focus on the optimism of possibility instead of the harsh limitation of reality.

What this allows is for Redmayne and Jones to endear us with their vast amounts of gentile determination. Redmayne spends more than half the film confined to a wheelchair, and at least the final act without the ability to speak. He is forced to convey his emotions with the corners of his mouth, his eyebrows, and those big bright eyes of his. To this end, he is equal to the task. Whether it is a push to defy the way we see the universe, or an empathy for his young bride and the burden she has taken on, Redmayne keeps us rapt…and does so with more and more limitations on his physical performance.

Felicity Jones meanwhile is able to inspire great amounts of love, respect, and empathy from us in her performance as Jane Hawking. She embodies a determination that not many of us would find within ourselves – right down to the refusal to be cold-shouldered by a boy she finds herself drawn to. Seeing her use every ounce of her slight physique to establish her place in Hawking’s heart, work, and life is impressive. It leads us to an understanding of what Jane meant to Stephen, and why he would feel the way he does about his effect on her own happiness.

That energy and love emanating from both of these young actors is what permits the film to pull focus from the work and instead zero-in on the connection between their souls. Some might call it a disservice to wrap the story of one of the greatest minds of the last century inside this sort of Christmas cracker, but one could argue that Hawking’s writing expresses what’s in his brain better than any film ever could, and this film needed to express what’s in his heart.

What’s in his heart exactly like what is in his brain: a complicated jumble. It has been stoked by demonstrations of great support, and conflicted by longings of his own. It’s messy, as matters of the heart often are, and continues to evolve with time and experience. The science of Hawking’s theorem might have made for an enlightening and challenging film, but it has deliberately been put aside to offer up something more endearing.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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