Thursday, December 25, 2014

'The Theory of Everything' (2014) directed by James Marsh

Will no one rid me of these troublesome biopics?!  After suffering through 2014's Jersey Boys, Jimi: All is By My Side, Get On Up, The Butler, The Imitation Game, The Invisible Woman, and Saving Mr Banks I am just about done with watching screenwriters trying to pop a neat thematic bow on top of the sumptuously packaged 'greatest hits' of some notable so and so.  So who's on the slate today?  Stephen Hawking?  Right, fine, whatever.  Roll the film.

The Theory of Everything charts Hawking's (Eddie Redmayne)'s relationship with Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones).  We begin in 1960s Cambridge, where we first meet the young physicist bouncing down the cobbled streets on a rickety bicycle.  With his goofy grin and oversize glasses he looks a little like Austin Powers' academic younger brother.  He soon proves to all that he's a genius physicist, and wins the heart and mind of the lovely Jane. Yup, looks like everything's going to work out beautifully for Stephen Hawking.

Then his body decides to eat itself.  Stricken with Motor Neurone Disease he's informed that his nervous system is going to shut down and in two years he's going to be dead.  Quite reasonably he holes himself up in his room, wraps himself in a blanket and feels exceedingly miserable for himself.  But  with the fragrant Jane for assistance he finds vast inner reserves of personal strength and decides he won't let this horrible disease stop him from living or completing his life's work. By and large you know the rest of the story; Hawking is a wonderful example of human fortitude to us all blah blah blah.

To be fair to the film there is some genuinely good stuff in here.  For a hungry young actor there can be few roles with Oscar-bait written all over them as much as Stephen Hawking. You get to play a witty man overcoming cruel fate, not to mention having to deal with  tricky performance limitations: first having to manage subtle facial tics, then being confined to a wheelchair and finally unable to speak or move altogether. Redmayne has clearly done his homework on Motor Neurone disease, effortlessly conveying the slow bodily horror of one portion of your body shutting down after another.  In the final scenes he's restricted to just a flicker of his eyes and a curl of his lip, but you can see the echoes of the lively 1960s Hawking in him.

The supporting cast are no slouches either.  Felicity Jones has to balance keeping the audience's sympathies while slowly falling out of love with Hawking, which she makes look deceptively easy.  This is especially impressive given that Jane Hawking is a curiously underwritten character, especially so given that this is an adaptation of her biography. David Thewlis is also a totally steady pair of hands as Hawking's professor, whose stern demeanour gradually melts into protective paternity as he recognises both Hawking's incredible intelligence and his personal bravery in dealing with his condition.

So why does this film suck?  It sucks because it presents Stephen Hawking's greatest achievement as overcoming his disability rather than his work in physics.  As far as Anthony McCarten's screenplay is concerned, Hawking may as well be a wizard for all the efforts it makes to understand what he does.  There's a moment early in the film that sums it up; Hawking and his classmates are given some 'impossible' equations to solve by Thewlis' professor.  Everybody is stunned into silence when it turns out Hawking has managed to 'only' solve 7 out of 8 of them.  It's impressed upon us that this is a huge feat but it falls flat as we have no context or explanation why this is impressive.  Look!  He's solved equations!  I mean, we don't know what equations they were but that doesn't matter right? What more proof do you need that he's smart?!

Similarly, when we see the blackboards full of complex formulae they're presented as an achievement in and of themselves, something that's apparently impressive purely because the characters are doing it.  As the film develops you slowly realise that there's going to be no real explanation of why Stephen Hawking is such a remarkable man, consequently there's the sense that the film is treating its audience like a big bunch of morons who only want to see a sappy sob-story-of-the-week terminal illness story.

There is some philosophical meat in the film, but it's a tired old debate between Christianity and science, a half-baked exploration of the confluence between high level physics and spirituality. This is tired ground that's been stomped into soupy mud by countless dramatic boots before it. Hawking's science might be beyond intuitive human understanding and perhaps difficult for mainstream audiences to wrap their heads around.  But then Hawking himself did it in his bestselling A Brief History of Time (which famously only contains a single equation: E=mc2).  Even within cinema, Errol Morris' fantastic documentary A Brief History of Time (1991) conveys Hawking's theories in crystal clarity (with a kickin' rad Philip Glass soundtrack).

The Theory of Everything, in its breathless quest to foreground the tragedy of Hawking's, ends up as emotional pornography.  "Oh, this poor man!" we end up thinking, sympathising with him as we greedily guzzle up his suffering.  For my money it's not even a great film about MND, certainly not a patch on the excellent but deeply disturbing documentary I Am Breathing, which chronicles the slow death of Neil Pratt from the disease.

Despite Redmayne's excellent performance and the general competence of the filmmaking The Theory of Everything is lobotomised, the grandeur of Hawking's discoveries reduced to fuzzy-wuzzy ponderings about faith. The film casually takes for granted that Hawking's science is too much for audiences.  It isn't.


The Theory of Everything is released January 1st.

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