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Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Theory of Everything Review: Enjoyable But Fails to Take Chances

Unlike the science he studies, the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything doesn't take enough chances.

Physicist Stephen Hawking is perhaps the greatest and well-known living scientist, with his extraordinary life struggles serving as inspiration for the new biopic The Theory of Everything. Although it succeeds in many areas, it suffers the same fate as its brethren: vanity.

In 1963, the brilliant but odd-looking Brit Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is attending Cambridge when he meets the driven Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). Although their love is built on Hawking devoting his life to studying Cosmology and time, Jane is an intelligent soul who dreams of studying language. At roughly the same time, Hawking begins to show symptoms of the motor-neuron disease ALS that will eventually leave him confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. But this eventuality doesn't phase Hawking, who does nothing short of redefine his field with a theory that combines General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Faced with a wheelchair-bound existence, Jane hires a local choirmaster (Charlie Cox) to help Stephen's growing family, unaware that she and Jonathan are falling in love. As his health becomes more complicated and their marriage begins to falter, Jane must decide if Jonathan's desires will see her leave Stephen, who by the 1980's has become a worldwide sensation.

Theory is a love story, based on Jane's second book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. It paints a picture of a complex man's tenacity as he races against time to discover the secrets of the universe before ALS consumes him. Redmayne delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Hawking, inhabiting the role as much as Daniel Day-Lewis did in Lincoln (read our review here). Redmayne gets Hawking, from his physical limitations to his relatively unknown sense of humor. By the time we're introduced to his now-familiar computer voice after a 20 year decline in his health, the two men are one in the same. Director James Marsh does bathe our characters in the glow of the 60's but does manage to throw a little dirt on them as well, humanizing Hawking as a quick-witted genius whose social skills aren't quite on par with the rest of us.

If it wasn't for Redmayne's performance, I believe critics would be raving about Jones, her quiet English resolve serving as the anchor in Stephen's rather tumultuous life. As that strength becomes undermined by the appearance of Hawking's care nurse (Maxine Peake), we feel a sense of loss as great as the universe Hawking has tried to tame for the past 50 years. And yet for all the resolve Jane displays, we never seem to know more than the most cursory information about her. We do know that she seems forever to exist in Stephen's shadow and only finds peace after leaving him; and even when that moment of separation arrives, her new-found freedom doesn't make us feel any better for it.

And that's why Theory ultimately fails. The biggest and most fundamental questions about a life filled with both startling difficulty and success is nothing more than a series of pretty moments leading to other ones. The reasons for Jane's involvement and fascination with Jonathon aren't explored nearly enough, and even the tense ALS moments never lead us with many answers or life lessons, both of which I do expect from biopics. Directors in this genre choose their topics carefully, hoping to do more than merely tell their story. In Theory, we're left with black hole-sized questions that are apparently ours alone to figure out. I think we'd have better luck developing a single unified theory than ironing such complexities in their relationship.

The parts surrounding The Theory of Everything are stronger than the whole, with Redmayne delivering a terrific performance and Jones close behind. But the story suffers from being unnecessarily pretty and reassuring, under-delivering on the extraordinary relationship behind Hawking and Jane. Suffering from a bit of its own vanity, it misses out on the chance to tell a truly powerful story of perseverance and what success can do to a marriage. In a year filled with a genuine lack of certified Oscar bait, this one might eventually rise to the top, although I fear its long-term appreciation won't hold up as long.

The Theory of Everything is Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material and has a runtime of 123 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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