By contributor Spencer Wilson
There is something to be said about a Stephen Hawking docudrama that moves the man himself to tears. Based on the autobiography Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Hawking’s ex-wife, Jane Wilde, The Theory of Everything attempts to charter the degradation of his physicality due to ALS and how he overcame it. Although Hawking’s scientific work and his life struggles are significantly underplayed in the film, Eddie Redmayne gives an extraordinary performance as Hawking, which alone makes the film worth watching once.
The film opens to Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) racing his colleague on a bicycle. The year is 1963 and Hawking is still very mobile and unfocused. Whether it is intentional or not, many viewers will recognize Hawking as the brainiac who never shows up to class except to demonstrate how smart he is by doing the teacher’s challenge questions last minute. Hawking is working towards his doctorate degree at Cambridge and is uninspired about what to do a thesis on despite working with one of the fathers of modern cosmology, Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis). During this time, he has an awkward yet charming encounter with Jane Wilde, an arts student who would become his wife.
As Hawking’s relationship with Jane and Penrose mathematics continues to grow, so does the appearance of his disability. In the beginning, there are a few tiny moments where Hawking picks something up just conspicuously enough to look suspicious, and soon this evolves into him possessing an increasingly unnatural gait. Before he has finished his thesis on Properties of Expanding Universes, he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease (now known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS) and given two years to live. Hawking and Jane swiftly marry and, despite his stature, manage to have three children and exceed the expectations of Hawking’s predicted lifespan.
The lifestyle begins to weigh heavily on Jane, who has her own writing and ambitions she wants to accomplish. Despite being married to a science-minded atheist, Jane is a devote Christian, and befriends a widowed pastor named Jonathon Jones (Charlie Cox) who then helps the family due to loneliness and an attraction to Jane. Tension in the family builds as Hawking has to have a life-saving tracheotomy, making life in the household even more of a struggle.
Director James Marsh’s approach to dramatic films is a convoluted one. Marsh is a powerful documentary filmmaker who knows how to blend truths to make his own statements on a given person or event, but the same cannot be said for this docudrama. The only parallels that Marsh attempts to draw are scenes in the beginning where Hawking is repeatedly shown as a leader, and scenes where Jane has to struggle with her scientific and religious sides by having both Hawking and Jonathon in the same room. The quiet depiction of Hawking’s physical degradation is well executed, but after the charming opening scenes between Hawking and Jane, any emotion left ends up feeling sterile. Marsh begins focusing too much on images that have a muted beauty, which greatly subtracts from the emotional portrayals. The greatest flaw comes from the lighting, which is deeply over-saturated in every scene, to the point where it feels like it was shot in a hospital. It becomes so overdone at some points that it looks like they took Vaseline and rubbed it over the camera lens. Scenes that should have depicted extreme feelings of hardship end up coming off as dull and unemotional, and the opening scene is so laughably colour-altered that it looks like the film is running on a Windows ‘98 computer that can’t keep up.
This leaves the only saving grace of The Theory of Everything, which is Eddie Redmayne. His performance is so convincing that you may mistake him as the real Hawking in later scenes, although that is partially thanks to a stellar make-up department. Redmayne had the enormous task of not only copying Hawking’s earlier and current mannerisms, but also nailing down the timeline for ALS symptoms. Redmayne’s dedication is summarized in an on-set story about how he would remain motionless and hunched between takes, to the point where the alignment of his spine had been altered. Everything from his electrically goofy young performance to his struggle to form words later on is remarkable. Redmayne has done his research and fully deserves this year’s Oscar for Best Actor.
Despite the performance, it’s not entirely enough to save the film. The Theory of Everything is worth watching one time to see Redmayne’s performance, but the rest is ruined by poor art direction and a lack of focus. We are left with a film that fails to fully recognize Hawking’s brilliant achievements in cosmology despite his limits, and are instead left with someone who helped people feel good about themselves.