Monday, December 29, 2014

The Theory of Everything (2014)

Directed by: James Marsh
Runtime: 2hrs. 3mins.
3/5*

Biopics are tough. Life is long and not particularly easy to adapt to a three act structure. We all know how many things can happen within a single year of life, yet biopics tend to attempt to cover many years. As a result many biopics, at some point, boil down to an extended sequence of, "then this happened, and then that happened." Finding any one meaning or message from a lifetime is a challenge, and The Theory of Everything feels more like a message was tacked on to the end rather than something we were building to throughout the film.

It's based on the book Travelling to Infinity, My Life with Stephen by Hawking's ex-wife Jane. While I do think for the most part the film manages to cover a fairly large portion of Hawking's personal life without becoming too unfocused, it doesn't show him spending his time working in his field. Neither does it expand upon his second marriage to Elaine Mason, although the film hints at its existence. He eventually divorced Elaine, and although Jane married their friend Jonathan Hellyer Jones, Stephen and Jane again became close along with their children and grand children.

The problem is that the film doesn't aspire to make us empathize with Hawking. The director whose previous films include two documentaries (Man on a Wire, Project Nim ) managed to keep the audience a detached third wheel. The family/relationship drama at the core of the film is delivered in a reserved fashion, which lessens the impact of the drama. It's a shame to not truly see the events and struggles from Hawking's perspective.

Another problem is that because the film is based on Hawking's ex-wife's book, the final act of the film is a little dissatisfying. It intends to show us how appreciated by the public Hawking has become, that he has done a lot of work, and that in general he's an inspiring figure both in terms of his work and his personal life. However, because we've spent the film without seeing anything other than Hawking's family drama, the scene where he receives a standing ovation after a speech falls a bit flat. While Hawking is a truly inspiring figure, the film failed to deliver that inspiration. If by the end of the film, their intent hadn't been self evident, they resort to telling us what they hoped we had gathered from the film.

The film seems to imply that Hawking’s legacy is not in science, but rather in showing other people that anything is possible. While that's a fine message, it attempts to tell us this at the very end after the majority of its runtime had been devoted to the rise and fall of his relationship with Jane.

Perhaps Scott Tobias writing for The Dissolve said it best,
"The Theory Of Everything isn’t an example of a bad biopic of a genius per se, but it’s a fine example of a typical one. It’s well-acted, attractively photographed, and certain to inspire audiences with the broad strokes of Hawking’s life, without communicating why that life was of any specific importance."
Perhaps the problem is the director's previous work in documentaries. The film feels more like an extended dramatization that might normally be found within a documentary. The documentary format tells us facts or events about a certain subject without necessarily making the audience feel connected to any particular character.

On the other hand, I will say I think what we are given is well done. The performances are fantastic, particularly that of Eddie Redmayne who manages to transform his physical appearance throughout the film. Hawking himself praised the film saying he was moved to tears, and that at certain moments in the film he thought he was watching himself.

You'll likely learn a bit about Hawking, and probably enjoy the drama, and performances, but this film lacks the empathy needed to push it to the next level.