The Theory of Everything manages an awful lot of sympathy for its central character, but I’m not sure the movie ever achieves empathy. It’s too tidy and facile to make that leap.
Based on a memoir by Jane Hawking, the former wife of famed physicist Stephen Hawking, the movie dramatizes the course of their many years together, beginning with their early flirtations in 1960s Cambridge and their marriage shortly after he was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease. The movie proceeds to depict Hawking’s eventual fame as an author and cosmologist, despite the fact that he would eventually only be able to speak via a computer and move about in a motorized wheelchair.
Director James Marsh, whose previous films include the documentaries Project Nim and Man on Wire, drowns his picture in an excess of British respectability. The early scenes of Jane (Felicity Jones) and Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) as eager students are polite and tweedy, carried mostly by the charming chemistry between the leads. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, meanwhile, casts everything in an insistent, overexposed glow, as if he’s attempting to wring beauty directly from the screen.
Despite this emphasis on elegance, however, there’s something cruel about the way the movie doles out hints of the catastrophe to come. Stephen stumbles here, drops a cup there. Now he’s struggling to pick up a pen. When he suffers a seizure of sorts and is thrown into the fullness of the disease, narratively it comes as a relief.
There’s a voyeuristic air to the way the movie depicts Stephen’s predicament.
This is also where Redmayne goes to town, and there’s no denying the physical transformation he manages, sitting crumpled in a chair like a once-supple leaf that now lies dried and bent on the ground. What’s more, the very shape of his face seems to have changed. What used to give way to an easy smile is now a contorted grimace, even when Stephen is smiling (and Redmayne emphasizes Hawking’s sense of humor throughout).
Now, we need some of this physical detail – to gloss over it would be insulting and dishonest. Yet there’s a voyeuristic air to the way the movie depicts Stephen’s predicament. Consider the scene in which he struggles to drag himself up the stairs of his home, with his toddler son watching from above. In terms of perspective, The Theory of Everything too often places the audience in the child’s position rather than Hawking’s.
For a full-immersion approach to a similar subject, consider Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which is almost exclusively told from the point of view of a stroke victim suffering from locked-in syndrome. This isn’t to say every such movie must follow that model, only that Schnabel found a direct route to empathy. In contrast, I left The Theory of Everything without any real sense of what it might be like to have Hawking’s brain or his body – or, for that matter, to live with him as his spouse while he tries to navigate the vast gulf between.
There are narrative faults as well, especially in the deeply dissatisfying third act. What had previously been a fairly studious portrait of a complicated marriage suddenly veers in a dramatic direction, seemingly on a whim. Instead, the movie turns its focus toward chronicling Stephen’s accolades, to the point of including a hoary scene in which a lecture audience gives him a literal standing ovation. Never mind the noble savage, The Theory of Everything offers the noble patient, served up with heavy doses of tea and sympathy.