Movie Review: The Theory Of Everything

Mama Fisi
Mama Fisi's picture

A friend at work loaned my husband a copy of the Stephen Hawking biopic, "The Theory Of Everything."  This is an educational film, and, as such, is more to be endured than enjoyed.

Taken from the memoir of Dr. Hawking's first wife, Jane (how can there be a spoiler on history?) the film depicts the painful physical degeneration of Stephen, as well as the tremendous burden that loving and caring for him put on poor Jane.

The film starts in 1963, when Hawking is a nerdy physics student at Cambridge University, meeting the pretty languages student Jane at a party.  Improbably, Jane is attracted to the awkward, gangly young man with the goofy grin and the skewed hornrimmed glasses, and in a series of vignettes, the couple grow close.

Then Hawking stumbles on campus, and learns that he has ALS, and that his body will eventually waste away, while leaving his mental faculties intact.  He is given two years to live.  Jane, unbelievably devoted, tells him she loves him and wants to spend whatever time he has left with him, after forcing him to play a painfully clumsy game of croquet.

The couple marry, have children, and cope with Stephen's degenerating physical condition.  Meanwhile, Stephen gets his PhD in physics for his theory on black holes.  He becomes famous.

Jane does her best to take care of him and their two children, but the strain gets to her, and her mother suggests she join the church choir.  Jane thinks that is a ridiculously English thing to say, but she goes, and meets gentle, handsome Jonathan, the choirmaster, who becomes a close family friend.

Perhaps a little too close, because when Jane has her third child, their friends and family tacitly assume it's Jonathan's, even though Jane insists it's Stephen's.  Apparently the automatic nervous system is not affected by the ALS.

Jonathan, who has been helping Jane to care for Stephen devotedly as a male nurse, tells Jane that, for all their sakes, he will step away for a while.  He admits he has feelings for her, and she tells him that she has feelings for him, too.  He departs.

Soon afterwards, Stephen is invited to attend an opera in Bordeaux, and sugests that students can help him fly there, while Jane can bring the kids and meet him by car.  She doesn't think it's possible because it's too difficult, but Stephen suggests she ask Jonathan to help.  He himself then goes to ask Jonathan to agree to the plan.

Now, the smart thing would have been for Jonathan to help the wheelchair-bound and nearly incapacitated Stephen to get to the opera, but no, instead he takes Jane and the kids camping, and the inference is that Jane spends the night in Jonathan's tent; at the opera, Stephen begins to choke, coughing up blood, and is rushed to the hospital, where he is in a coma.

Jane gets the telephone call the next morning and rushes to Stephen's side, where the French surgeon suggests they disconnect Stephen's ventilator and let him die.  Jane, horrified, refuses, and they instead perform a tracheotomy which forever robs Stephen of the ability to speak.  He returns to England and is in a deep depression.  Jane and Jonathan decide never to see each other again, as Jane rededicates herself to her husband, trying to teach him to communicate with a letter board.  She doesn't seem to make much progress, and so a nursing aide named Elaine is brought in.  Stephen and Elaine seem to hit it the extent that Jane is slowly cut out of their interactions.

Stephen then gets the computer that allows his to speak, and Jane is distraught that it has an American accent--not "Oh, lovely!  My husband can communicate again!" but "Oh, it's American--do you have any other voices?"

Stephen decides to write a book, which eventually becomes "A Brief History Of Time."  In the conclusion, he mentions "knowing the mind of God," which Jane, long a believer in God, ecstatically thinks is Stephen's admission that he, an atheist, finally has come around to admitting the existence of God.  But of course, he hasn't, and then tells Jane that he's asked Elaine to accompany him to America to help him on a book tour.  Jane decides that she's had enough, and the couple seperate.  While Stephen goes on to even greater acclaim as a brilliant scientist, Jane goes back to Jonathan.

When Stephen is to be honored by the Queen, he asks Jane to accompany him to the ceremony at Buckingham Palace, and the film ends with the estranged couple watching their three healthy children scampering about the garden.  We learn later he turned down the knighthood.

It's difficult to write an opinion of this film, without sounding like I'm beating up on a cripple.  I respect Dr. Hawking's fortitude in living with his condition for half a century, but watching this film made me wish that Jane had taken that French physician's advice, and let him die in Bordeaux.

This film gives the viewer some idea of what it must feel like to be Dr. Hawking, trapped in a painful, slow, and awkward situation. It is two hours and three minutes of the most agonizingly boring film I've ever seen.  Yet all the actors do a terrific job gaining the empathy of the audience, particularly Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, who play the Hawkings.  His agonizing impairment, and her devoted fortitude, are mentally exhausting to watch.  And as Stephen loses the ability to speak, his dialog becomes torturously slow and garbled, and all the viewer can do is sit there drumming his fingers, waiting for the next's like suffering time dilation on the event horizon of a black hole...

The physics discussions are done in terms a layman can understand, and the film is beautifully shot.  The passage of time is indicated by subtly changing Jane's hairstyle and clothing, even adding a few pounds to her silhouette as she ages from twenty-something ingenue to forty-something mother of three.

Eddie Redmayne channels Dr. Hawking perfectly, right down to the skewed glasses.  Watching him struggle with a decaying body makes one doubly thankful for one's own good health.

On the negative side of the production, we had to watch it with the closed captions on because a lot of the dialog was mumbled, even when Stephen was well, at the beginning.  And the style was in vignettes that were sometimes rather vague in their implications--for instance, did Jane actually sleep with Jonathan when she went over to his tent?  And the way the audience was told that Jane and Stephen had seperated was when moving men were putting Stephen's degrees and awards into a box, but Jane said "No--that picture stays."  I suppose had one read "Travelling To Infinity," they would have known more of what was going on.  And of course there was the biggest mystery of all--what Jane actually found attractive about Stephen.  Even when healthy, he was the archetypical nerd, and a rather snobby British socialistic atheist physics major nerd at that.  And on top of everything, the subtle suggestions of infidelity, in a marriage already under tremendous stress due to the disabilities of the husband, feel very creepy, especially when Elaine naughitly helps Stephen to look through a copy of "Penthouse" magazine.  There's an air of the predator about her character, and one feels that Jane, who resisted her attraction to Jonathan and cared for Stephen with incredible patience and attentiveness, is being cruelly betrayed.  When she finally tells Stephen their marriage is over, you wonder what took her so long.

I suppose if you want to learn more about Dr. Hawking's battle with ALS, and have a high tolerance for art house chick flicks, and don't get too squicked out by watching someone suffer, this would be a good film to watch.  For everyone else, there's Wikipedia.