Working Title (2014) 123 min. PG-13
Director: James Marsh
Screenplay: Anthony McCarten; based on Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Wilde Hawking
Cinematography: Benoît Delhomme; Editing: Jinx Godfrey
Production Design: John Paul Kelly; Set Decoration: Claire Nia Richards; Costumes: Steven Noble; Score: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Stars: Eddie Redmayne (Stephen Hawking), Felicity Jones (Jane Wilde Hawking), Charlie Cox (Jonathan Jones), Maxine Peake (Elaine Mason), Harry Lloyd (Brian), Emily Watson (Beryl Wilde), David Thewlis (Dennis Sciama), Christian McKay (Roger Penrose)
The new biography of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything leaves one wondering what that theory of the title is alluding to exactly in terms of the content. The movie never makes it quite clear, though apparently it was intended to tie everything together at the end. Just as the feasibility of this grand design ultimately eluded Hawking, so James Marsh’s biography about him seems to likewise be missing some strategic element to impart it with form and to infuse it with meaning. This free thinker whose theories revolutionized the science of cosmology has been accorded a screen memorial that fails to think outside the box.
The Theory of Everything seems a strangely purposeless, amorphous affair whose cardinal flaw may be its own generalized air of speciousness. It never really clarifies any of Hawking’s revolutionary ideas and, until the end, makes no attempt to correlate his theories back to his life story as it’s been dramatically sculpted here. The movie’s makers don’t seem much interested in getting into Hawking’s head, so a biography about him can merely serve the same purpose as a civic ceremony in honor of a great man, a sterling silver commemoration. The script was adapted by Anthony McCarten from the memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen published by the scientist’s ex-wife Jane Wilde Hawking in 2004, so from conception to birth, it was an outside job, looking in.
When we’re informed Hawking has become world famous we have no way of knowing on what grounds he’s made his name since the script seems to be skimming over so much material that should be providing the basic building blocks of this screen bio. From our blinkered line of vision, he doesn’t seem to have written a thing since his doctoral thesis. And as the decades slip by, we never have any clear sense of exactly where we are in the space-time continuum. The movie seems to end in the present but for all we know we might be in a cultural vacuum since things visually seem little different from where we started out.
There’s no evidence afforded us confirming Steven Hawking’s status as the radical socialist he’s characterized as and the movie, reworking the earlier, quasi-iconic image of him cradled in the nurturing arms of the Victoria statue fabricated for the film, ends on the exhilarated high of his private audience with the queen, as if he saw such recognition as a seal of approval, confirmation of his ascension into the upper echelon. For some reason, it’s treated as the meaning of his life, as though this were what everything had been leading up to.
In the early scenes set on the Cambridge campus of the 60’s, Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography has a hazy, nostalgic glow recalling the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewellyn Davis. It’s the tint of things half remembered. Occasionally however Delhomme will slip into senso-aural impressionism in a manner meant to recall The Bell and the Butterfly, and the allusion fits nicely with the movie’s conception of its three-pronged character study, each unfortunate participant joining wheelchair bound Steven Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) who suffers from a debilitating, degenerative form of ALS, in their mirroring entrapments. Steven’s is a beautiful mind betrayed, Frida Kahlo fashion, by a body he can’t control, whose neuromuscular system is disintegrating right out from under him, even while his senses remain attentive and alert. For her part, his wife Jane (Felicity Jones) is trapped in marriage to a man she was determined to commit herself to in noble, suffering woman fashion. The script was adapted from her bio after all, which may explain why Jane has been given a more prominent place in proceedings than the man this movie is ostensibly about. Not realizing it, she’s condemned herself to a life sentence obsessively caring for an invalid with whom she could never find full contentment. While Jonathan (Charlie Cox), the religiously devout man she comes to love is trapped by his feelings for her which in the eyes of his wrathful God, is a sin worthy of hellfire and damnation.
The movie itself seems to agree with this severe divine assessment since the wife is punished for dallying with Jonathan, by having the husband she’s neglected instantaneously stricken down with a tracheotomy as if in condemnation of her carelessness and it’s not made clear that this is the way Jane has interpreted things, rather than simply the way the world naturally works. The way the two events have been intercut one would think their fornicating had directly driven Hawking into apoplexy an ocean away, some quite powerful tantric lovemaking. And though it seems coy to ascribe Hawking’s most notable identifying feature, the voice box that replaced his stricken vocal cords, as judgment on her, if the script didn’t intend it to be, there would be no sense in Jonathan choosing this moment to pull away, when one would think the Hawking would need his help more than ever. All three protagonists are caught in that most fascinatingly rare of screen triangles – a nonsexual love affair, which becomes the movie’s most intriguing aspect, playing as it does on a complex set of interlocking emotions that fails to reduce recognizably human needs and drives to demeaning, black-and-white movie dimensions. To the contrary, Theory betrays an almost prurient interest in the sex lives of the physically handicapped, after the manner of The Sessions, which featured the evocatively named John Hawkes (not even a distant relation) as a paraplegic character in similar straits. How derivative this movie may be of that one, I can’t say since I have yet to see it, but Theory feeds into the audience’s own unspeakable curiosity, especially as we witness the babies that keep popping up year after year.
The Theory of Everything transforms Hawking’s story into a hothouse melodrama of thwarted passions and frustrated longings. It can blame ALS for reducing one of the foremost intelligences of our times back to his basic instincts and animal drives. The script purports to be interested in his mind but the focus is generally from the neck down, and we half expect someone to remind the camera that Hawking’s eyes are up here. Hawking defied the medical establishment who gave him two years to live but perhaps his most impressive accomplishment was in proving that in our increasingly technological age that as long as the mind remains responsive, the rest can be forfeited. His dependence on the intellectual ingenuity that designs robotics to replace his failing human biology is intended to make us admire such indomitable resilience.
There’s no possibility of respecting him for his mind when all that seems to matter in this movie is the psychological and the emotional. Steven claims his sexual capabilities are divorced from the neuromuscular functions he has no control over, which explains a lot about men according to his friend, reaffirming as it does the convenient excuse that their big head has no control over their little one. Though he’d been endearing in My Week with Marilyn (which Theory references by showing us a picture of Hawking with Monroe) and even impressive with a memorable solo in Les Miserables, clocking in one of that lumbering, generally artificial movie’s most effectively sincere moments, I’d always thought of Eddie Redmayne as a lightweight actor. And so he is, but this is the sort of showy role up and coming talents generally give their eye teeth for, the chance to play drunk or cripple in a manner that allows them to slur and slobber and stumble around in the interest of proving that they’re really acting with a capital ‘A.’ He’s the only real reason to see this typically inspirational, uplifting, disease-of-the-week movie which, by all the normal aesthetic standards shouldn’t work. Rather than a disgrace, under the guiding hand of director James Marsh, Redmayne manages to turn in a respectable account of himself with a physically nuanced and emotionally powerful performance. And that’s no small feat considering the extent to which Hawking has been mercilessly parodied in the media for so long. So much so that even the majority of people who can’t fathom his theories and mathematical formulas are still familiar with the celebrity persona. With his robotic additions, he’s become the freakishly Frankensteinian Einstein of our era, man as extension of machine and Redmayne even references Schwarzenegger, cinema’s greatest cyborg, with his comic ‘exterminate’ bit while playing with his children. There reaches a point when a celebrity becomes so well known any attempt to portray them become more a matter of mimicry, the art of impersonation rather than the more difficult act of creating a character. Their work rests on the strength of how well they nail down the superficial surface gestures we’re most familiar with. A less sensitively handled representation could easily trigger viewers already hardwired to laugh expecting an unwitting lampoon. Redmayne however is given the gift of first presenting us with Hawking before he became the well-known international figure, someone we’ve never seen before, so he has greater freedom to create a character from scratch, accruing our buy-in and empathy before we begin judging his performance on the particulars. He brilliantly segues into the public Hawking of the world stage, slowly accumulating piecemeal all the familiar accoutrements the public now associates with him and considers inseparable, the ALS, the electronic wheelchair, the metallic voice synthesizer. When his wife complains that this state of the art Equalizer doesn’t have an English accent, it’s just to make us realize that we’d never entertained the possibility that Hawking himself must have had one before his tracheotomy. If we hadn’t heard it issuing from Redmayne’s mouth at the beginning we never would’ve believed it.
Events are even reversed backward at the end, as if in answer to Hawking’s oft quoted question whether it’s possible to turn back time, offering us this reprise to remind us what a formidable stretch Redmayne has made as an actor in this role, a for your consideration montage built directly into proceedings. He’s a galumphing, socially awkward prodigy when we first meet up with him as a Cambridge graduate student, effortlessly unraveling complicated scientific theorems on the back of train schedules, all akimbo limbs that jut out at stork-like angles, an English Ichabod Crane with a shock of ginger hair falling into his freckle dotted face. He’s resurrecting one of moviedom’s favorite old standbys, the genius IQ whose a tongue-tied numbskull around pretty girls, which is meant to make intellectuals seem less intimidating and more relatable to the rest of us. Yet he already possesses the familiar tilt of the head which will become more exaggerated as his degenerative condition takes hold, and his limbs and muscles seem to twist and turn inward on themselves like the branches of a gnarled tree.
With Hawking’s constricted arms and legs making it impossible to express emotions through the usual means, Redmayne relies heavily on slight movements of the eyes and head, even shrewd, ‘involuntary’ spasms so that we’re always well aware of what the character is thinking and feeling. When he’s confined to an electronic wheelchair he even incorporates that into his act, spinning and stopping it, even varying its speeds to communicate his character’s level of energy at any given time. After his tracheotomy, the robotic voice he types with sounds flat and emotionless, but his physical inflections supply all the feelings we need. A slight miscalculation early on however was to give the actor free leave to slur his speech so realistically it’s been made largely incomprehensible, leaving his wife to translate by repeating back whatever he’s just said. Jane’s already serving as his interpreter, so the voice synthesizer seems supremely redundant.
Undoubtedly many commentators will find Redmayne reminiscent of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, and while he has got the physical mechanics of his performance as Hawking down nearly as pat, he doesn’t suggest the fire or ferocity Day-Lewis brought to his superficially similar part, the uncorked rage of an artist imprisoned in a body that fought tooth and nail against his freely expressing himself. But despite the fact both real life characters found their own ways to circumnavigate physical handicaps in order to excel in their fields, there’s no real reason Redmayne’s performance should bear any closer comparison to Day-Lewis’ since the coolly analytical mathematician in Steven Hawking is a completely different temperament than emotional, artistic Christy Brown. Where Day-Lewis’ Brown was a volatile, alcoholic roustabout, Hawking has the stiff upper lip of stoic English reserve. He’s soft and recessive where Brown was savage and confrontational.
Locking eyes with his infant son when he proves incapable of making it up the stairs under his own volition, we know his Hawking has regressed back to a similar stage in his development. When he can no longer form full sentences and looks at his wife with the pleading eyes of a puppy dog in his sub-toddler state, one can understand why her mothering instinct would be so strongly aroused, not the best basis for a healthy marriage. Jane is willing to sacrifice her life in caring for his needs, which is what women have historically been expected to do, but what’s remarkable is that Hawking should be shown to be reliant on her so completely, despite making noises that imply a strong desire to maintain some measure of independence. After all, he had tried to push Jane away when he received his initial death sentence, but later obstinately refuses to seek the assistance of home aid or live in nurses because doing so would dispel the illusion that they were living a perfectly normal life.
As fate keeps chipping further away at his physical capabilities he is in fact virtually dependent on her for his every need despite the image he would like to project to the world of still being somewhat self-sufficient. The evolution of Hawking’s character, as it’s been mapped, seems entirely to do with his acceptance of the harsh reality that he’s not enough of a man in his present state to keep his wife satisfied and agreeing to bring in the help of a sexual surrogate in all senses but that primal, primary one. Jonathan, who conducts Jane’s choir and teaches her son piano, how to master the muscular skills his father can no longer control in himself, inspires both painful resentment and world weary resignation in Hawking, acknowledgement that only together do they make the perfect man. Guess it helps to make the first husband morally complicit. Balancing Hawking’s agnosticism with Jonathan’s spirituality, the analytical mathematician with the intuitive musician, a woman hasn’t been so satisfactorily timeshared between two men since the days of Jules and Jim. The script almost scuttles this intriguing affair though, by halfheartedly trying to abstract the men into representatives of god and science as if we were watching Paul Bettany expound on the Origin of the Species as Darwin in the glorious, sumptuous, overlooked Creation, where similar dramatic tensions in the dichotomy between evolution and religion panned out much more persuasively. After sacrificing everything to care for him, even the man she’s come to love, we find it swinish that the script then forces Jane to accept that she can’t be everything to Stephen, caving to the point of bringing into the home the professional physical therapist who would become his second wife. As we sit waiting for him to ask Elaine (Maxine Peake) to be with him, we come to understand his imprinting on another woman actually releases his wife from her own bond as his personal nursemaid and attendant. He may not be able to escape his own physical imprisonment but he doesn’t want to see her waste her remaining years entombed alive in her own metaphorical cage because of him. Jane exonerates herself of any guilt in abandoning a cripple by laying blame for the divorce squarely in Stephen’s lap. Their parting scene would be near sublime if the director didn’t keep threatening to ruin the mood with too many cutbacks to tears that have formed seemingly out of nowhere, and having Hawking wheel up to Jane in such a way as to invite derision.
Without even taking into account such sci-fi as Interstellar, About Time and Edge of Tomorrow, Theory is the second high-profile drama this year following Boyhood to make the theme of time endemic to its structural narrative. Time may be relative but it can feel so long, the years endless, when trapped in a prison of one form or another. The Theory of Everything may never get around to explaining Hawking’s History of Time in a way that makes it palatable to the casual layman, but it certainly manages to convey the emotional significance of making time fly, the importance of leaving people feeling as if it were passing ever so briefly rather than neverending. While the uncomfortable sentiments raised concerning in-home care for the disabled are not uncommon, the movie still leaves one with the untoward impression that such unfortunates are albatrosses extending their natural lifespan thanks to advances in medicine and technology. The Theory of Everything presents Steven Hawking’s success at circumventing all the odds stacked against him as a case of hanging around past one’s suggested shelf life. The most preeminent quantum physicist of our age is reduced here to a state tantamount to curdling.