THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING Review | TIFF 2014

     September 8, 2014

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A Stephen Hawking biopic was always an inevitability.  The man is simply too iconic and successful with too much physical and emotional baggage for filmmakers to ignore him forever.  Thankfully the movie that emerged is not as nauseatingly maudlin as reasonably feared, nor is it as harshly honest as some might have hoped.  The Theory Of Everything shoots straight for the middle in it’s telling of Hawking’s tragically inspiring life and ultimately that’s entirely appropriate.  It’s a beautiful and moving movie, if a flawed one. Yet probably also about as good a project as one could have hoped for.  Hit the jump to find out why.

Eddie Redmayne stars as Hawking, picking up the story while he was in the midst of his PHD at Cambridge. At the time Hawking was an incredibly talented, yet lazy an unfocused student (hard though that might be to believe, even if it gives us all hope). Early scenes establish Hawking’s bourgeoning interest in the nature of time that point towards his future, while at the same time he meets Jane (Felicity Jones), a beautiful and intelligent young woman who wins the genius’ heart. Then right when he’s about to break out of his intellectual and emotional shells, Hawking is diagnosed with motor neuron disease, which almost instantly destroys his abilities to move and speak. Yet, Hawking powers through and we seen him achieve intellectual acclaim and form a family as his body disintegrates. The dramatic irony of the world’s most brilliant mind expanding as his body seems to die around him is of course delicious from a dramatic standpoint and none of the filmmakers or actors involved miss that opportunity. It’s just as tragic and inspiring a rendition of the Stephen Hawking as you’d expect, though when the film reaches a potentially dark third act it pulls back and misses an opportunity for an added layer of complexity.

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Still, good news first. Redmayne is absolutely extraordinary as Hawking, gradually taking on the physical ailments without losing any of the wit, charm or intelligence he brings to early scenes. The physical disintegration is carefully mapped out with early hints during heartbreaking moments and it’s extraordinary how much Redmayne can do with so little movement by the end. Felicity Jones is also heartwarming as Hawking’s wife. There are times when perhaps she’s a little too idealized (the film is based on the real woman’s book after all, so that’s not too surprising), yet Jones always finds away to ground the role as a strong, loving woman pushed to her limits.

Directing duties fall to James Marsh, whose career is predictable only in how wildly unpredictable his choices have been (ranging from structurally experimental documentaries like Wisconsin Death Trip and Man On Wire to intense thrillers like The King and the second chapter of The Red Riding Trilogy). A biopic never seemed in the cards for Marsh, yet he takes to this specific story quite well. Marsh consistently finds elegant ways to visualize Hawking’s complex ideas (especially a certain backwards coffee sequence) as well as finding ways to show an inert man communicating (one particularly sad scene in which he scrolls through words on his computer unable to find the right thing to say is gut-wrenching). Taken purely on it’s own terms, The Theory Of Everything is a very sweet, beautiful, and inspiring story. The trouble is that there’s more to the story left untold.

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Specifically, there’s the troubling nature of Hawking’s womanizing which saw him leave his wife Jane for a nurse and then that nurse for another. The first bit of adultery is covered in the film, but barely and feels glossed over. The nurse doesn’t have enough screen time to develop a personality and sense of betrayal in the situation is barely explored. Tossing off such material feels like a missed opportunity to explore Hawking for his flaws as much as his strengths, yet given the scientist’s direct involvement with this movie and the way in which this side of the story would contrast with the inspirational aspirations for The Theory Of Everything, it’s a forgivable misstep.

The film does wander uncomfortably close to being frustratingly manipulative and precious as it wraps up, yet this feels like more of a requirement of the genre than a miscalculation. The Theory Of Everything falls squarely into the sentimental and inspiring subgenre of biopics and within the limitations of that style works quite well. Frustrating as the ignored elements might be, let’s face it, no one was ever going to make the Raging Bull of Stephen Hawking movies and frankly the man didn’t really deserve that treatment either.

Grade: B

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