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The Theory of Everything (2014)

Challenge Accepted

Two things kept me from properly experiencing The Theory of Everything at a screening last month. First, the buzz going in was that Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Dr. Stephen Hawking was the stuff of awards-season legend—but that the rest of James March’s film (including the screenplay by Anthony McCarten, adapted from Jane Hawking’s book, Travelling to Infinity) was weighed down by crowd-pleasing, "Based on a True Story" clichés. 

Second, and especially problematic, was the fact that I’d just spend forty minutes chatting with Redmayne in a lounge, and was unable to shake the disconnect between his fit, charming, real-life self and the withering, awkward genius he plays in the film. It really is the masterful, stirring performance you’ve heard about, and I blew at least an hour pouring over the physical and emotional nuances of Redmayne’s transformation.

One thing kept me from recusing myself from writing a review for The Theory of Everything. I realized early on that the negative buzz was bullshit. True, Hawking fans, or those expecting a remake of A Beautiful Mind, will walk away disappointed. The film's best-kept secret is that it's not really Hawking's story; it's Jane's (Felicity Jones), his ex-wife. As such, March and McCarten deliver one of the most surprising and moving films of the year, anchored by a pair of lead actors who defy expectations just as surely as the material they bring to life.

For anyone living under an asteroid, Stephen Hawking is the world's most famous living scientist, whose groundbreaking theories on life, the universe, and everything were overshadowed only by his battle with ALS. The degenerative disease struck him at Cambridge, shortly after meeting Jane, and Hawking's struggle has surpassed doctors' initial two-year death sentence by several decades (the Hawkings' marriage wasn't so lucky).

The Theory of Everything charts Hawking's path from nerdy dreamer to love-struck academic to brilliant scientist who wants nothing more than to rip apart the secrets of existence--yet finds himself trapped in a body that can barely move. When college-aged Jane signs on for the long haul, she has no idea that she's in for years upon years of helping to feed, clothe, transport, and counsel the lively guy who danced with her after the Cambridge ball--not to mention raising three children and falling in forbidden love with her church's choir leader, Jonathan (Charlie Cox).

As tawdry as that may sound, the film elegantly presents the audience with complex emotional issues and characters who navigate them without slipping into melodrama. Jones paints Jane as a big-hearted fighter who sacrifices everything for the man she loves, but stops just short of relational martyrdom. Neither Stephen nor Jane come across as saintly, and the wear of disease, clashes on faith versus science, and Jane's very human need to be held and loved by someone whose concerns are less ambitious serve as the basis for many wrenching, nuanced scenes. Just as Hawking fought against the rigidity of the scientific community early in his career, The Theory of Everything asks us to set aside black-and-white notions of fidelity and love.

My major problem with the film is the way March and company deal with the passage of time. But this may be something I'll get over with a second viewing. Because this is, at its core, a relationship drama, the filmmakers place much emphasis on what makes Jane and Stephen tick as a couple. As the movie progresses, however, the need (on someone's part) to make this into a formal biopic takes over, and we're subjected to montages and narrative corner-cutting that begs for either excision or another two hours to completely flesh out (I would have enjoyed the latter option, personally, as I couldn't get enough of these characters).

Here's a good example: early on, Stephen makes clear that ALS doesn't negate his ability to reproduce; that's helpful information, but there's an unintentionally funny visual incongruity to his physical deterioration and the brief clips of all these kids showing up in the Hawking household.

Despite a handful of such rushed episodes (including Stephen's shoehorned relationship with his physical therapist), The Theory of Everything succeeds at being an intimate look at adversity in human relationships. Those wringing their hands that there's not enough science in the Stephen Hawking movie miss the point. March and McCarten posit that love, dreams, and hope are the very fuel that propel mankind to learn about the universe (and our preconceptions of it), long after mere curiosity has subsided. In lieu of compassion, desire, and an inherent faith in our ability to conquer adversity is the dull intellectual void of ant-like species that do not, in fact, deserve to know more than how to forage, build, and reproduce.

Consider Star Wars, for a moment. A New Hope is synonymous with that series. The Phantom Menace is not. The difference? An inartful imbalance in the prequel trilogy between exposition and drama. Luke Skywalker and the rebels plunged head-first into fantastic adventures, guided as much by love as curiosity. Anakin Skywalker was trapped in a cold world built on A-to-B references designed to bring his character's destiny into alignment with a pre-established universe--hence trade federations, clone factories, and tons of superfluous hooey that drained the mystery and romance from three entire movies.

The Theory of Everything doesn't compare to George Lucas' groundbreaking 1977 achievement, but there's plenty of soul-searching and deep questions of heart and conscience to recommend it as a wholly unique kind of space-exploration film. Fueled by performances both relatable and extraordinary, March demands that we revisit his characters as a way of understanding our own.

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