Arts & Culture

Powerful portrayals fail to solve ‘Theory of Everything’

Film focuses more on Hawking’s relationship than on his scientific accomplishments

By
Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A former teacher of mine once declared — with appropriate grandiosity — “If God speaks to us at all, he does so in number.”

There’s something strangely appealing in his proclamation. Religious texts? Nonsense. Sworn recollections of miracles and visions? Insignificant. A deep, unspoken and unapproachable intuition of something beyond the limits of our perception? Meaningless internal noise. But an ordered set of cosmological data? A numerical deconstruction of the world’s underlying circuitry or an equation that has the power to explain all of existence — well, then you might be getting close. My teacher taught literature, not mathematics, but he grasped the enchanting power of numbers and, equally so, the people who can read into them.

This approach to James Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything” ­— a romantic biopic about Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his first wife, Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) — is also an attempt to explain the enduring appeal of films like it. The film is one of two this season to explore British geniuses in the middle of the 20th century. Redmayne might find a companion in Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game.” And with Michael Caine’s enigmatic scientist in “Interstellar,” it seems brilliant Brits with esoteric equations and troubled personal lives are having their cultural moment.

“The Theory of Everything” follows Hawking’s life, starting when he first meets and falls in love with Wilde as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge. This comes shortly before he is diagnosed with an Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis-related motor neuron disease and is told he has a life expectancy of two years. It ends when he meets the queen, shortly after his divorce from Wilde after 25 years of marriage. Along the way, he ponders black holes and space-time, searching for the Maltese Falcon of the film’s title — the theory that would bridge the chaotic world of quantum mechanics with general relativity.

Considering the imaginative nature of Hawking’s theories, “The Theory of Everything” seems too grounded in the traditional arcs of a biographical film, content to play through his life’s greatest hits while exploring little else. Though enjoyable and certainly inspiring in an intentionally mundane way, the film remains fairly conventional. For a movie about a man famous for making theoretical physics accessible in his popular science book “A Brief History of Time,” it is a shame that the film does not attempt to depict or elucidate any of his cosmological concepts and remains content to let old white men in tweed tell of his genius rather than showing it firsthand.

“The Theory of Everything” reaches its best when it commits to its most basic story: the relationship between two people as one physically deteriorates. Jones and Redmayne carry the movie, depicting the affection and despair between a couple thrown into tragedy. While Redmayne’s portrayal of a body in decline will receive its well-deserved praise — he captures the terrible pathos of a man struggling through every motion — Jones’s nuanced performance gives the film its spirit. Her role may include several clunky lines, but she manages to turn what could have been a one-dimensional representation of a supportive spouse into a complex portrayal of duty, love and disappointment.

One of Hawking’s most famous theories centers on the idea of multiple universes — that the uncertainty of quantum mechanics creates separate realities. Anything that is possible, he supposes, becomes realized in some form. Perhaps somewhere, in some alternate universe, Stephen Hawking’s life has been represented fully, portraying the genius of the man, the tragedy of his life and the philosophical implications of his marriage. Somewhere ­­­— but unfortunately not in “The Theory of Everything.”

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