Life in a black hole
The Theory of Everything, biopic, rated PG-13, Regal DeVargas, 3 chiles A movie about Stephen Hawking ought to be bursting with ideas, exploding like the big bang, expanding like the universe. What director James Marsh has come up with is a nicely crafted, watchable, but conventionally structured romantic biopic.
It has, however, one extraordinary feature that lifts it above the level of Lifetime entertainment and gives it wings. Eddie Redmayne is brilliant in his transformation into the gnarled, twisted physical wreck of the Hawking we know, body confined to a wheelchair, voice produced by a machine, mind soaring through time and space.
The Hawking we first meet is a geeky, cheeky doctoral student in cosmology at Cambridge. He meets a young woman, Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), and despite their differences — he’s an atheistic physicist; she’s a devout Christian studying art and poetry — they fall in love. When Hawking begins to experience clumsiness and suffers a bad fall, he is diagnosed with ALS, a form of motor neuron disease. The prognosis is of rapidly deteriorating muscle control and a life expectancy of two years. By the end, he is told, only his brain will continue to function normally.
This is the kind of role upon which Oscar ambitions are built, and Redmayne seizes the opportunity by the throat. For a while, as Hawking’s body begins to break down, he continues to get around campus, his legs wobbling, his feet dragging, his mouth contorted, and his speech slurring. He dazzles his professors with his doctoral thesis on space-time singularity. He marries Jane. He fathers children. His body continues to deteriorate. But he continues to live, to lecture, to write. He continues to think, and to theorize. His reputation continues to grow.
What Redmayne captures, as much as the pretzeled limbs and the slurred, later lost, power of speech, is the character of the man. He’s witty, he’s funny, his eyes twinkle, and even when his lips are warped, he still can light up a room with his smile. He may have been hell to live with in many ways — the movie is based on the memoir by Jane, now his former wife, and it’s a kinder, gentler revision of an earlier version that painted a darker picture of their relationship — but, after a brief period of devastation, he never seems to have allowed self-pity to get the upper hand.
The human elements of The Theory of Everything are fine, beautifully played by Redmayne and Jones (whose distinctive mouths look curiously similar). What we miss is the excitement of Hawking’s mind. We want more physics, more of the science that reaches in his consciousness to the deepest expanses of the universe. The film A Beautiful Mind, for example, was able to give us a bit of a glimpse inside that unconquered wilderness of thought. Marsh doesn’t manage to take us there; despite Redmayne’s heroics, The Theory of Everything remains earthbound.
— Jonathan Richards