A prurient taste for Penthouse Magazine and red-headed nursemaids? The Theory of Everything

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Stephen Hawking is a bit of a pig (with apologies to our swine brethren). At least that is one takeaway from The Theory of Everything, James Marsh’s biopic of A Brief History of Time‘s famed physicist author.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the profound physical limitations that ALS (“Lou Gehrig’s Disease”) imposed on his keen, unearthly scientific intellect, Hawking apparently always remained a bit of a 1960s Cambridge “lad” with a prurient taste for Penthouse Magazine and red-headed nursemaids.

This aspect of Hawking’s personality isn’t as prominent in the film as that lead-in might suggest, but it still stands in stark relief to the thirty-year devotion his first wife Jane offers him, from his early days struggling with the disease through the publication of his seminal work. Jane doesn’t suffer silently, though, as she herself is depicted as toying with an extra-marital dalliance with her church choir director (sweetly underplayed by Stardust‘s Charlie Cox), whom she later marries. (Someday, someone has to make a movie about how many trysts start off in the church choir.) Marsh, working from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten based on Jane’s own Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, does not shy from showing Hawking as a flawed but brilliant man.

The best weapon in Marsh’s cinematic arsenal is Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) in a jaw-droppingly transformational performance as Hawking. Redmayne, never showy in that “I’m not an animal!” Elephant Man way, immerses himself … no, subsumes himself … in Hawking’s evolutionary physicality, from the occasional stutter step and cramped hand of his early 20s to the fetal crab-like nature of his present life. It is astonishing. Yet, the impish light never leaves Redmayne’s eyes, conveying Hawking’s exceptional genius, when the script fails to give us much scientific substance behind his discoveries.

In general, the Hollywood biopic is a flawed genre, cursed from its inception to cram a lifetime into two-plus hours. People become ciphers, reduced to a CliffsNotes existences, as hairstyles and fashion choices and home furnishings magically change around them, decade by decade.

Like such recent examples as Helen Mirren in The Queen or Michelle Williams in My Life with Marilyn (or even Judi Dench in Philomenablech), Redmayne rises above a predictable “based on true events” script that tends to telegraph its punches. Look! Young Stephen drops a piece of chalk. Look! Hunky choir director is making goo-goo eyes at his new mezzo soprano Jane Hawking. Look! Marital tension boils over at a garden party Christening where Stephen’s parents confront both son and daughter-in-law separately about their life choices, foreshadowing their ultimate implosion. Redmayne so fully inhabits Hawking’s inner/outer life that we (mostly) look past the workmanlike narrative.

Every bit Redmayne’s acting match is Felicity Jones (Northanger Abbey) as Stephen’s long-suffering wife. It is to Jones’ credit that she never descends into self-pity or martyrdom, but rather reveals a multi-layered person whose path has brought a mixed bag of reward, betrayal, fulfillment, and disappointment. The script saddles Redmayne and Jones throughout with a half-baked debate over science versus spirituality, unfortunately never resolved in any particularly meaningful way.

Rounding out the cast are David Thewlis as Stephen’s long-term faculty mentor and a criminally under-used Emily Watson (oh, I love her) as Jane’s patient mother.

The film is beautifully shot in gauzy light, like a box of old photographs. The approach suits the woozy material well, which spans thirty-or-so years, from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s. The filmmakers generally get the feel and look of each decade right – Cambridge in the Hawkings’ early days serves as a kind of shabby Camelot fairy tale setting, replaced later by garish, clunky 80s environs as their marriage crumbles.

I wish that I loved The Theory of Everything. It is supremely well-acted, but ultimately the conventionality of the narrative hurts the film’s overall impact. I found myself deeply moved by Redmayne and Jones but left a bit cold where Mr. Hawking himself is concerned. Perhaps that is the film’s point after all (though not a groundbreaking revelation) … all genius comes at a price, and the act of discovery is often much more interesting than the final summation.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

21 thoughts on “A prurient taste for Penthouse Magazine and red-headed nursemaids? The Theory of Everything

  1. yes, he is quite the chauvinist, and when i read interviews with him decades ago i was pretty put off by his adolsecent prurience. he was reportedly pretty out of line with his home care nurses too

  2. mercy! brillliant succinct critique…so john nash wins the filmed genius mathematician/scientist contest after all? at least I look forward to a better script for and performance by the ingénue wife this time around? will I like this film…detested “beautiful mind” efforts but LOVED crowe who got the biography across in spite of the ludicrous script. this is a beauty of a review, roy…I can tell the ohio state university taught you well! but then they had a genius to work with for starters! you are THE best!

  3. Susie, I like the third l in Brilliant because Roy is trills with the three l’s don’t you think? Roy, great review on the overall movie and script but I didn’t like Hawking and he kind of grossed me out too I don’t know if it was because he was a chauvinist or he is just all around a nasty kind of guy. Well done Susie he is very good at what he does. Don’t blush Roy!!!!!

  4. i would like to see this film for the performances, and after reading your review, not so much for the presentation. i think all geniuses are a bit flawed, after all they are extreme characters – p.s. -i love your last line of this review.

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