Tasteful ‘Theory’ falls into a Black Hole

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Who possessed the finest mind of modern times? Certainly, British theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, would have to be included in the conversation. He pioneered erudite theories that govern our understanding of black holes and creation of the universe.

Hawking’s accomplishments are particularly impressive given the fact that at age 21, he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease. Hawking was advised that he only had two years to live. Now 72, Hawking exceeded these dire predictions to become one of the world’s leading luminaries.

“The Theory of Everything” revolves around the relationship between Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his first wife, Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones).

Even this supposedly high end biopic is not exempt from a standard meet cute plot device. The film kicks off in 1964, when Hawking and Wilde are attending a party for college students. He’s a graduate student in physics at Cambridge University, who is already renowned for his brilliance. She is presented as also being a student there in French and Spanish literature. Actually, Hawking met Wilde when she was still in secondary school. She eventually matriculated at Westfield College in London. More substantively, the two were not immediately smitten with one another in quintessential fairy tale fashion. In reality, several years passes before the two commenced dating in earnest.

This image released by Focus Features shows Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in a scene from "The Theory of Everything." (AP Photo/Focus Features, Liam Daniel)

This image released by Focus Features shows Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in a scene from “The Theory of Everything.” (AP Photo/Focus Features, Liam Daniel)

Here, the socially maladroit co-protagonists exchange furtive glances, then engage in awkward badinage. An initial point of potential conflict quickly emerges. She is immersed in the cultural arts and embraces religion. In her view, God created the universe and rules over it. By contrast, he embraces a scientific rationalism and professes atheism.

As depicted in the film, when Wilde indicates that she belongs to “COE,” Hawking is unaware that this was an abbreviation for Church of England. Similarly, when Hawking indicates that he is studying  cosmology, Wilde does not have a clue what it is. He glibly explains that cosmology is “kind of a religion for intelligent atheists.” Are we to believe that these two well-educated characters really lack such basic knowledge? This exchange is a portent of the film’s repeated use of expository dialogue to inform an audience, which it assumes to be a bunch of ignoramuses.

There are far bigger problems ahead. Several months after their auspicious meeting, Hawking spontaneously stumbles and crashes to the ground. He is rushed to the hospital. There, he receives the dread diagnosis of motor neuron disease. Although Hawking supposedly has only a short time to live, Wilde insists on marrying him. It is a touching gesture.

Hawking’s condition becomes progressively worse. He becomes paralyzed and becomes confined to a wheelchair. Following a tracheotomy, he becomes unable to speak. However, Hawking adamantly rejects the notion of hiring an outside caregiver. So Wilde is compelled to be her husband’s full-time attendant.

The film becomes a compelling study in devotion. Struggle as I did, I was unable to understand Wilde’s apparent love for Hawking. As depicted by the film, he is unreasonably demanding and a pompous egomaniac. Moreover, he espoused atheism, a view that would have been anathema to Wilde.  Was his towering intellect sufficient to inspire her love?

A screen capture from the  trailer to the movie "The Theory of Everything" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Salz7uGp72c

A screen capture from the trailer to the movie “The Theory of Everything” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Salz7uGp72c

There is little evidence of passion between Hawking and Wilde. Despite this and Hawking’s paralysis, they manage to have three children together. In an apocryphal scene, Hawking explains to one of his fellow physicists that he still retains his virility.

The film devolves into a double love triangle. Hawking develops feelings for his nurse, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), while Wilde harbors a long simmering affection for her church’s choirmaster, Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox). Hawking abruptly announces his intention to travel to America with his nurse. When did their relationship heat up? For that matter, when did the relationship between Wilde and her choirmaster turn carnal? From the film’s depiction of four circumspect characters, it is impossible to divine. For a plot line that revolves around passion, the film displays extreme emotional restraint.

More distressingly, for a film about a genius postulator, the treatment of his theories is muddled. “The Theory of Everything” does not enable the viewer to understand why Hawking’s theories about the space-time continuum were so groundbreaking. Instead, we have scenes of Hawking frantically scribbling on a blackboard. In another vignette, he imagines the creation of the universe as the cream swirls in his cup of tea. Incongruously, Hawking’s cerebrotonic colleagues discuss his abstruse theories in dumbed down terms, proclaiming him to be brilliant. When Hawking has an epiphany and radically revises his views, it is depicted as an incidental event. The film suggests that it is nothing more than if he has switched his order from a vanilla milkshake to chocolate.

The acting here is top notch. Eddie Redmayne does a remarkable job, capturing Hawking’s efforts to deal with his physical limitations. It evokes Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning portrayal of Christy Brown in “My Left Foot.” The members of the supporting cast, which also includes thespian stalwarts, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, and Simon McBurney, all deliver measured performances.

This is the sixth feature film for director, James Marsh. Previously, he alternated between making documentaries like “Man on Wire” and “Project Nim,” with helming features like the middle entry in the “Red Riding” trilogy and “Shadow Dancer.” He has demonstrated a facility for marshalling an extensive array of facts into a narrative framework.

The impressive production values confer a patina of prestige on the film. The cinematography by Benoit Delhomme, production design by John Paul Kelly, and score by Jóhann Jóhannsson are all superb. Fireworks at the May Ball enliven the film. Titanium, the firm that provided pyrotechnics at the 2012 London Olympics, provides similar services here.

So, where does the film go awry? The screenplay by Anthony McCarten is based on “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” Wilde’s second, book about her relationship with Hawking. While the memoir is less stridently acerbic than her initial book, it still contains some unflattering perspectives on her ex-spouse. The film treats the separation of Hawking and Wilde as being quite amicable and mutual. This is at variance with “My Brief Time,” Hawking’s autobiographical account of events he describes as being the tempestuous.

Undaunted by these salient considerations, McCarten seems intent upon presenting the relationship between Hawking and Wilde as one of the great love stories of all time. This is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the two ultimately divorced. Conspicuously, the film omits the fact that Hawking’s nurse, Elaine Mason, abandoned her husband of fifteen years, leaving him to raise their two children alone. It also fails to disclose that Hawking’s marriage to her also ended in an acrimonious divorce, amidst allegations that she had physically abused him.

“The Theory of Everything” has been greeted with rapturous reviews. It is being widely touted as a surefire Academy Award nominee. The film certainly contains some inspirational elements. It boasts fine acting and extraordinary production values. However, “The Theory of Everything” is plagued with a screenplay, which is tasteful, albeit simplistic. This dooms the film to fall into a narrative black hole.

“The Theory of Everything” **1/2 PG-13 (for some thematic elements and suggestive material) 123 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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