Rarely do biopics appear during the life of their subject; the secrets that such projects carry tend to be too great of a burden for someone still living. The story tends to show a hero laced with mistakes, failings, and shortcomings that most of us would rather not submit to public scrutiny. In short, biopics show how very human we all are: fallible and noble, frail and strong. The veneer of perfection or heroism is tarnished in the process of admitting our humanness.
James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything is just such a biopic, remarkable for its intrusion into the life of still-living scientific giant Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane Wilde. Hawking has long eschewed public inquiry into his life; he may have celebrity status for his work, but he has never welcomed the eyes of the masses into his day-to-day life. Marsh’s movie, adapted from Jane’s memoir, breaks into this taboo realm and reveals just how human both Steven and Jane are. The intense and palpable narrative is a romance turned prolonged tragedy, focusing on Stephen and Jane’s love for each other and the diseases that slowly rip them apart.
Most notable about the film is the raw portrayal of a degenerative disease. From the first scene where Stephen clumsily speeds through Cambridge University on bicycle, we see hints of the motor neuron disease that will eventually paralyze him. A spilled cup of coffee here, a dropped pen there: the warning signs of what is coming litter the opening scenes, and the audience watches in horror as bungling movements grow slowly into full-blown handicaps. Watching one of the most brilliant minds be unable to write with a piece of chalk—and then not be able to lift a spoon, nor control saliva dribbling off his chin—is heartbreaking.
So is the toll on Jane. A brave, noble, and resilient woman who marries the man she loves with the understanding that he has only two years to live, Jane is as much a tragic heroine as Stephen is a tragic hero. Jane is brilliant herself, attempting a PhD in Medieval French and Spanish Literature, but we watch as her own career and ambitions are crushed under the responsibility of raising her children as (for all intents and purposes) a single mother and providing care to her completely disabled husband. She takes on an enormous burden with little return; Stephen’s growing prestige grows an arrogance and pride that makes him refuse to have any outside help from doctors or nurses while being neither affectionate nor grateful to Jane. As Stephen’s pride, career, and disease progress, Jane withers.
In this way, the movie is remarkably human; it paints no sweet facades nor writes off the suffering in Stephen’s condition, but shows the situation and the characters in their imperfect splendor and doomed trajectory. It does have an element of hope and triumph of Stephen’s ability to continue working despite the disease and its complication, but the focus of the story is on the destruction the disease and the career wreak on the Hawkings. We watch Stephen grow from an intelligent and lackadaisical boy into a driven and ambitious researcher hounded by his imminent death, but success changes him into a proud and selfish demigod who sees his wife’s sole purpose to be his maid and nurse. The disease may be a villain, but in many ways Stephen becomes its henchman in destroying his own marriage. The vision The Theory of Everything paints is truly tragic, realistic, and human.
It helps that there is not a weak actor or actress in the cast. Eddie Redmayne is remarkable as Stephen, convincing us of the vibrant and frustratingly lazy young man, but also the crisis of the diagnosis as the catalyst that creates a driven scientist. Even when Stephen can move little more than his eyes, fingers, and a few subtle face muscles, Redmayne conveys an intensity, thoughtfulness, and humanity that can move one to tears. Redmayne is all but upstaged by Felicity Jones, however; the story is just as much Jane’s as it is Stephen’s, and the acting of Jones carries much of the movie, subtly but powerfully driving home the death-by-inches that Stephen and (subsequently) Jane are suffering. Jones’ astounding performance gives us the full complexity that marks the tragedy of the Hawkings’ marriage.
With all of the aforementioned, The Theory of Everything is a good movie. There is a major piece that keeps it from being a great movie, however. (Spoiler alert). Despite taking seriously the human body as far as Stephen’s disease is concerned, the movie does not take seriously the human body in the realm of adultery. Double infidelity is at play in the movie—Jane’s affair with Jonathan, Stephen’s affair with Elaine—and it goes by with hardly a blink. There is a single aftermath scene that suggests guilt for Jonathan and Jane, and one scene where Stephen and Jane lament their failed marriage. Otherwise, the movie plays off the traumatic experiences on all parties involved as little more than set-backs in an experiment.
And this is crucial. Catharsis is a good thing. Art that draws us into the deep and painful places in ourselves that we would otherwise never explore is mysteriously freeing and healing. Our empathy for Hamlet allows us to process the tragedy of our own wasted time and opportunity; watching Katsumoto die on the battlefield leads us to mourn our own lost heritage, friendships, and loyalty; weeping over Lennie Small, we weep over our own dead dreams that seem too ordinary to mourn. Catharsis helps us cry when we are too proud or hurt or scared to cry. We process our own pain by taking on and living out the pain of the characters we have grown to love. As we mourn and identify with these very real made-up people, we reckon our own scars and somehow find the world more bearable. It is more real, yes, but we can somehow get on a little bit better and a little bit longer. When we grieve the situations of our characters, we grieve for ourselves as well.
The Theory of Everything does not allow us this grace. Pain and heartache are introduced but never processed. The final scene is a moment of remarkable bathos; we have watched so many tears and laughs and smiles and pain inflicted by both sides just to have it end with a bland but-everything-is-okay-ness. It is unsatisfying and unconvincing. The movie ends with such a lack of climax and closure that the audience is left with the thought that they have watched a terribly, terribly sad tragedy but have been given no space or permission to lament it. The fuel for catharsis is gathered, but the movie never lights the pyre.
The movie is still well worth viewing. It is an astounding story of bravery, doom, and failure, but it lets us down at the last. It takes us down a painful path but never lets us sound out that pain, instead trying to convince us at the end that all’s well that ends well, except for Stephen’s disease. The illness is shown in all of its horrible destruction, but the adultery that ultimately breaks the Hawkings apart is masked as just a minor inconvenience. The movie is still powerful and moving, but the fizzled ending lingers and leaves a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth.
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