By Hugo Camps-Harris
For a film that charts the life of a man whose works are so dependent on rigorous analysis, it is slightly ironic how The Theory of Everything does such a poor job of probing the acclaimed mind of Stephen Hawking. Prestigious awards will not doubt fall into the open arms of Eddie Redmayne, but his tremendous portrayal of this iconic figure should not mask the fact that this biopic holds little substance.
By The Theory of Everything’s conclusion, it might become apparent that Hawking has a sense of humour somewhat unexpected for a man of his condition. Rather than an austere individual, removed from many of our own realities through his disability, audiences of this film see the scientist make great light of his situation with some cutting innuendos. Nevertheless, as watchers of the hit US TV show The Big Bang Theory can divulge, this aspect of Hawking’s personality has already been explored. Arguably, it is also an aspect of his personality that is not wholly relevant. As one of many who has doubtless stumbled across Hawking more by way of the mystical aura he exudes than his achievements, it would have been fitting to witness, not only what makes the man unique, but also what made his theses so innovative.
Instead, viewers are flung straight into the love story concerning a young Stephen Hawking and his future wife Jane (Felicity Jones). Some Durham students might disagree as to whether it is a ‘treat’ to see this tale play out in front of a beautiful Cambridge backdrop, however, one can’t disagree that this idealised start, albeit familiar and conventional territory, is effective when it is juxtaposed so starkly against the point when Hawking’s ALS begins to take its toll. As already suggested, Redmayne ensures this is no jovial Ice-Bucket Challenge when he so superbly captures the nature of the physical effects the disease entails; the signs of which are cleverly alluded to in previous scenes.
However, glossing over the strains that occurred in the marriage between Stephen and Jane, strains that are emphasised much more willingly in Jane’s autobiography on which The Theory of Everything is based, guarantees a narrative that remains a touch too elevated, its characters almost beyond reproach. In conjunction with the fact Hawking’s works are persistently allusive (barely two minutes are spent covering his magnum opus, A Brief History of Time), director James Marsh never truly challenges this film’s protagonist by opting not to present him warts and all.
On the silver screen, The Theory of Everything is at its best when silence is golden. Some of the understated and hushed exchanges between Stephen and Jane are where the film gains some excruciating emotional traction that is all the more accentuated when several third parties come into play. Fortunately, due to the dramatic possibilities obtainable through Hawking’s illness, the script also never sags; a flaw often found in similar productions such as The Iron Lady. It is perhaps telling and pertinent to note that Hawking himself enjoyed this film immensely. It is said he was so delighted by The Theory of Everything’s final cut that he handed over the rights of the synthesised voice that he uses to communicate, to the film’s producers; rights that up to that point had not been made available. Maybe, as someone who in fact married an arts student, he really wanted to be remembered via the stylistic qualities the broad brush of cinema guarantees. In reality, The Theory of Everything’s final line, ‘look at what we made’, only highlights a missed opportunity.