Everyone knows who Stephen Hawking is, but I'm not sure that many people outside of a physics department could actually tell you what he did or that much about Hawking himself. We know that he speaks through a computer, we know that he's largely unable to move, and we know that somewhere along the way, he proved himself to be a genius. But what did he actually do? And how did he wind up this way?
These are the questions you would expect a biopic like The Theory of Everything to address, but it turns out that The Theory of Everything isn't entirely about Hawking — and it certainly isn't specifically about his science or his struggle with motor neuron disease. Instead, this movie is about Hawking's marriage to Jane Wilde and the difficulties they both went through as Hawking began losing the ability to move and communicate. It's a movie about a relationship, but it’s still structured like a biopic, which ultimately creates a storytelling structure that doesn’t quite work out.
The film spans decades and tells the story of Hawking, played by Eddie Redmayne, beginning with his time as a cheeky Cambridge grad student in the ’60s and running all the way through his adult life and the release of A Brief History of Time in 1988. Within those decades, the film is largely structured around key points of scientific discovery and the progression of his disease, throughout which Redmayne does an incredible job of recreating the crooked positions of Hawking's fingers and the uncomfortable shifts in his neck and cheeks. We see him come up with breakthrough theories, and we see him fall and stumble and head to the hospital. This is a film tracking Hawking's life — but the film isn’t primarily concerned with those key events.
That makes orienting yourself within the movie pretty darn confusing. You may be expecting a Diving Bell and the Butterfly type of deep dive into an impenetrable mind — but you'll get nothing like that. You may be expecting to simply learn the impact Hawking's discoveries had, or how you become a person who thinks of such incredible things, or how you cope with developing a crippling disease. But none of these things are within the movie’s scope. You'll see each of these events happen, but the movie has a limited attention for them. They're all presented in the context of how Hawking's relationship with Jane is developing, but his relationship with Jane isn't made half as interesting as these world-changing events that we're just speeding past. It’s hard not to want to see more of them.
The film is torn between Jane and Stephen
At the same time, the film never gives you as much as you want of Jane, played here by Felicity Jones, who actually is quite interesting. As Hawking becomes less and less capable of expressing himself, the film slowly diverges from him and begins to explore what it's like to be around him. It isn't pleasant. Jane works slavishly to assist Hawking while also raising kids and pursuing her own studies. She's ignored by Hawking's colleagues, all men, who don't care about her beyond her ability to get him to and from campus. Even Hawking is ungrateful sometimes.
Jane is fascinating and strong and dealing with all kinds of problems. She's a woman trying to have an academic career and a family at a time when that really, really is not easy. And she's constantly torn over what to do about Hawking: she married this man because she truly loves him, but she only expected him to live for two more years — not to require constant care for ten or twenty or thirty or more. That's an intense struggle, and the best parts of The Theory of Everything are when we get to see Jane living it.
What's strange is, The Theory of Everything never realizes that Jane is the most interesting part of this story. In fact, The Theory of Everything is based on a memoir by Jane, so the source material is coming from her point of view — perhaps explaining why we never really get inside of Hawking's head. That's not to say that Jane doesn't get her due here: she increasingly does as the film goes on, but Hawking is always the core of the movie. Jane, for the sake of her narrative, is often quite literally in the background or being pushed aside, and there simply isn't enough of Hawking himself to provide us with something meaningful to hang on to instead.
What's even more strange is that the most interesting moment of this movie wasn't originally in it. It's a brief scene, basically just a shot of Jane working on her thesis while her family goofs around in front of her, but it says absolutely everything about her life: she is trying, hard, and no one notices. When I spoke with Felicity Jones, she said that this moment was actually added at her input, that she felt it was critical to get across that Jane was an academic, trying to balance her career and family. Jones is right, though I do wonder: if we hadn't been given such an interesting and revealing moment of Jane, perhaps the film would feel less torn between her and Hawking. It might even be more fulfilling, if only because we wouldn't be left unfulfilled with how much more we want to see of Jane.
The lack of focus in this film is really too bad, particularly given that it's coming from director James Marsh, who did some truly incredibly documentary work with Man on Wire. Marsh does dramas too, but it feels like somewhere in The Theory of Everything those wires got crossed — or perhaps didn't get crossed enough. It's a logical movie for him to take on because it's half narrative, half history, but the way it pans out is unsatisfying because we never get enough of either. There's at least one truly fascinating story hidden inside The Theory of Everything — and probably many, many more. I'd really love to see them.