The Theory of Everything is the last of the four Best Picture nominees based on real events that I have to review. In this case it’s about Stephen and Jane Hawking. People looking for a film delving into the great scientific achievements and discoveries of Dr. Hawking may end up being a little disappointed. While it does mention some of them, especially early on, this movie is actually a relationship drama about the marriage of the two and how Jane had to deal with Stephen’s deteriorating condition from ALS. While this wasn’t what I was hoping for when I started to watch the film it nevertheless is worth seeing.
Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones) meet while he is starting his doctoral program. We already see he is having some trouble with his movements. When he finally collapses for no reason and hits his head he sees a doctor who gives him the bad news: he has ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease). This is a motor neuron disease which prevents the brain from sending signals to the muscles. Control over them is lost, which eventually leads to death from not being able to breathe. The doctor tells Stephen he has two years to live.
Stephen basically tries to cut himself off from the world, but Jane won’t allow it. She draws him out and the two get married. They have three children together. The film shows the difficulties Jane has to deal with in not only raising the children, but also having to care for Stephen, who is increasingly unable to do even the simplest things for himself.
Jane eventually starts an affair with a man she meets when she tries to get out of the house to have some time for herself. Stephen tacitly gives his approval for her to pursue it. Stephen ends up falling in love with a caregiver hired to come in, but Jane isn’t as understanding as Stephen was.
The reason for the focus on the relationship and all the trials and tribulations of Jane, rather than a focus on Stephen’s scientific accomplishments, is that it is based on Jane Hawking’s 2008 book Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. It was a heavily edited and updated version of her far less flattering first book that she wrote after Stephen and his caregiver fell in love. When asked about the accuracy of the movie (and by extension the accuracy of Jane’s second book) Stephen replied that it was “broadly true.”
Redmayne does a fantastic job playing Stephen Hawking. Any time an actor portrays someone with a disability this attracts a lot of attention, but in this case he really did a great job. Since films are not shot sequentially, he had to make up charts about what level of disability Stephen had at what point in the movie. He then had to perhaps play a scene walking with two canes, then fully in a wheelchair, then when his ability to speak was completely lost, back to back to back. I have no idea how he contorted his body into some of the positions the ALS left Stephen’s body in. The real Stephen Hawking said that he felt like he was watching himself in some scenes. I still have two other Best Actor nominees to see, but I would consider Redmayne the frontrunner.
Felicity Jones was also nominated for her performance as Jane Hawking. While she certainly did a fine job I didn’t see anything particularly outstanding about it. Perhaps that was simply because she was acting alongside Redmayne’s great performance.
This is one of the Best Picture nominees that did not also receive a Best Director nomination and it’s easy to see why. If I did not know Hawking’s life story and roughly when certain events occurred I would have had no idea that the movie spans 30 years of his life. At first you can tell a few years have passed because of the three children that are born, but after a certain point it’s as if they had never existed. We never see the children again until the very end of the film.
There is little attempt made to age either Redmayne or Jones. He plays more and more disabled, but that’s it. She gets a “mom haircut”, but that’s about it. I’ve seen many comments from people who were stunned to find out that the movie covered 30 years and not the 5-10 that they were figuring.
Contributing to this is that several times during and right after his diagnosis it’s stated that he has only about two years to live. Not once does the film address the fact that he lives far longer than that, nor why that is. (He has a rare form of ALS that progresses far more slowly. Although pretty much unable to move much more than a cheek muscle now, he is still alive today almost 50 years since his initial diagnosis.)
Finally, there is the completely random casting of Emily Watson as Jane’s mother. It’s a single scene, it’s not particularly dramatic, and there’s nothing about it that requires someone of Watson’s talents. It never pays off in another scene; we never see her again. The result is that you’re left wondering if you missed something in the scene, and/or confused when it never leads to anything more. I’m guessing she did a favor for the director in appearing in his film.
Despite the flaws in the direction, this film is worth seeing for Redmayne’s performance. Yes, the movie focused far less on the scientific achievements than I had been hoping for, but others may be relieved that it only mentions them in a few scenes. Overall, if you want to see a great acting performance then I recommend you give this film a try.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars