“The Theory of Everything” and Thoughts on Star-Crossed Lovers

Theory of Everything!

Before Eddie Redmayne bewildered audiences as a space Cenobite with laryngitis in Jupiter Ascending, he was promoted to Academy Award Nominee Eddie Redmayne thanks to his performance as physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, the closest thing to a British costume drama in this year’s Oscar race. Unlike his turn as the rebel Marius in Les Miserables, his rendition of the increasingly immobile Hawking had no show-stopping musical numbers and ended up forfeiting the Best Original Song category, even though there are plenty of words that rhyme with “black hole”.

(Special note: if you’d prefer to be surprised by historical records, beware light spoilers ahead.)

Short version for the unfamiliar: Rather than a complete chronicle from birth until lunch last Tuesday, The Theory of Everything joins Hawking in progress on his undeclared doctorate and ends during the book tour for A Brief History of Time when he was volleyed to rock-star status. Along the way he met Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a Spanish Medieval Poetry major, devout member of the Church of England, and general polar opposite of him. She sticks with him through his college years, resolves never to leave his side even after the dreaded symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis begin to manifest, helps him perform his Activities of Daily Living during the years when high-level thought processes were all he could manage, bore three children with him, and made a lot of his victories doable.

Hawking struggles with both his theories and his condition. Further deliberations and scientific advancements help on both fronts. And just as his career picks up steam, their marriage falls apart.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: David Thewlis (Remus Lupin!) is the most prevalent mentor (probably an amalgam of real professors) guiding and applauding Hawking through the years. When years of child-rearing and husband assistance leave Jane wishing for something more in her life, she returns to the church and joins the choir, led by Charlie Cox, the formerly young hero of Stardust. And two-time Academy Award Nominee Emily Watson has maybe two scenes as Jane’s mom.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Hawking’s survival against the ravages of ALS demands the spotlight, of course. Redmayne keeps the transitions modulated as he shifts from goofy awkwardness to fidgety clumsiness to anxious onset to furious denial to brave team-coping to near-total paralysis. The odd thing is, as Hawking grows more frustrated, the film gets less sentimental with him as it goes. His denial outbursts happen early on while he still has the muscle control for hiding and pouting. Once that stage passes, he’s too busy pursuing Science to rage at the heavens or grovel for tears. His challenges are hard to watch at times, but I never felt prompted to cry for him. Especially not in the later years.

While Hawking’s theories receive their due to a certain extent, the more fascinating and sometimes sorrowful underpinning is the relationship between Stephen and Jane, the unequally yoked lovers whose clashing beliefs ultimately undermined their connections. Jane had been in the Church since childhood, while Stephen had no use for it, favoring the field of cosmology that he defines tongue-in-cheek in the film as “religion for intelligent atheists”. They overlook the theological gap between them, and Felicity Jones marvelously conveys a sense of swelling hope at a point when her husband seems to be conceding the battle. When he later recants and stands firm against God, it’s one of the worst moments to feel those hopes crushed.

It’s sad but not surprising, then, to see Jane tempted into sin when she befriends Jonathan the choir director, a single, genial man of God who’s on the same page with her in a number of crucial areas that her non-believing husband refutes on principle. It’s left vague as to whether or not Jane commits adultery with him while still married — there’s a clear point where she could have, but the cameras back away, withholding the evidence and therefore denying us the privilege of confident judging. What’s shown with less ambiguity is that Stephen eventually does cheat on her, regardless of whether or not she sinned first. And yes, enough puzzle pieces are provided to explain how this could happen.

Full disclosure: the entire “unequally yoked” situation hit me right between the eyes. I can tell you from personal experience that when a couple’s religious views are separated by a mile-wide chasm, romantic storybook love isn’t remotely strong enough to bridge the gap without (a) one or both sides making deep compromises and basically forfeiting key tenets that they should ostensibly be holding dear; or (b) divine intervention that leads one of them to change.

It’s tough to watch and it sucks to live through. But they nailed it.

And that’s probably the most you’ll hear from me about my first marriage for the foreseeable future.

Nitpicking? High-minded science fans hoping for in-depth hard-facts dissection of Hawking’s early black-hole theories (and subsequent self-refutations of same) will be disappointed that the movie rarely rises above Wikipedia paragraph-one level, for the sake of holding on to us commoners in the audience.

If you’re a stickler for historical slavishness, the Hawkings’ separation and A Brief History of Time‘s release seems to have been swapped in the chronology, assuming the Wikipedia dates for each are valid. That’s all I noticed as a casual viewer with little foreknowledge of Hawking’s life.

Somewhere out there, though, are probably a dozen articles lecturing us all on “What The Theory of Everything Gets Wrong About Hawking, Theories, Everything”. Y’know what? This Oscar season has me burnt out on historical checklisters making loud “AHEM” noises while raising one index finger in protest, so I haven’t bothered to go hunt for examples. Let’s assume some killjoy of a critic has written the definitive essay on why this entire movie is one big Highlights for Children “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” puzzle and…let’s walk away from it, what say?

So did I like it or not? As the happy lovers doomed to fail, Redmayne and Jones win all the way. It’s especially a tribute to Jones’ talent in the later scenes, in which she’s the only one allowed to move, that Redmayne isn’t left alone playing dead. By the time he’s down to using only the glimmers in his eyes and his cold speech synthesizer, Jones is already pulling twice her weight and keeping couplehood alive enough for both of them.

I’ve seen one previous film by director James Marsh, the universally acclaimed 2008 documentary Man on Wire. That one followed the story of high-wire acrobat Philippe Petit and his 1974 feat of walking a slender cable strung between the roofs of the two tallest World Trade Center towers, 110 stories over Manhattan. (Later this year will see a fictionalized version of the same event in Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit. Can’t wait to see the history majors grousing about that one.) Marsh interviewed Petit as well as the close accomplices who assisted him with this illegal stunt, and kept the story rolling beyond the walk itself and into Petit’s sudden stardom, the rise of his ego, and the destruction of his relationships with those who helped make it possible.

The Theory of Everything isn’t too far removed from that. You see the obstacles. You see the teamwork coming together. You see fears fought through. You see the impossible happen. And then you mourn the cost. And at the end, the hero is the only teammate still smiling.

Based on Jane’s memoirs, the film nonetheless maintains a tricky balance between the two of them, trying not to choose sides for as long as it can. In a more ordinary film based on a jilted spouse’s recount, we’d expect the famous hero to look bad while the aggrieved defendant shines. That’s not exactly the case here. In one last magnanimous act of deferential service, she steps aside, embraces humility, and concedes the final scene of applause to her celebrated ex-husband.

The trailer’s big hook was Hawking’s banner quote, “Where there is life, there is hope.” That’s the sound of Stephen anticipating the joy of future scientific advancements and expansions of the human knowledge set. This aphorism may also sum up Jane’s thoughts about the state of the soul of the man she loved.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after The Theory of Everything end credits, though realism addicts may appreciate that one (1) theoretical physics consultant is listed in the credits. This isn’t much compared to the veritable army of engineering schools listed in the Interstellar end credits, but I’m sure the one professor was a big help with all the chalkboard calculus.

What do you, The Viewers at Home, think?

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