Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 5, 2014

Hawking biopic loses its way

David Laprad

There’s a curious scene in “The Theory of Everything,” the new movie about physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane. In it, Hawking, for whom the word “brilliant” is inadequate, is watching a soap opera. A friend comes in and expresses his disbelief that one of the greatest minds on Earth would be caught up in such drivel. Unfazed, Hawking shares the details of the sordid love triangle in the film – so and so is sleeping with so and so, but loves so and so, and so on.

Watching “The Theory of Everything” is like walking into that room and catching Hawking watching the soap opera: it doesn’t compute. But then again, the film wasn’t based on a biographical work about Hawking – as many people seeing the film will probably assume – but on one of Jane’s memoirs, “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.” Whether or not this is why the film is light on science and heavy on soap is not for me to say, but I can’t help but think there’s a better film to be made about Hawking.

This is unfortunate, because “Theory” does start promisingly. It begins when Hawking and Jane meet while students at Cambridge in 1963. While he’s socially awkward, he’s also brave, and pursues Jane. Their scenes of courtship are intercut with material focusing on his work as a doctoral student. As he succeeds on both fronts, he becomes more and more physically debilitated, until he’s forced to see a doctor, who breaks the bad news: he has motor neuron disease, and will be dead in two years.

It’s a devastating blow. Up to this point, “The Theory of Everything” has done nothing wrong. The relationship between Hawking and Jane is tender and sweet, and has potential. As a budding physicist, Hawking has potential, too. Watching the scenes of him struggling with the diagnosis and then fighting the loss of his physical faculties are heartbreaking. Nonetheless, he’s determined to live a normal life, so he marries Jane, who loves him and refuses to leave him, and he speaks passionately about devising a single equation that explains “everything” about the universe.

And then...

And then the film leaves science in the dust becomes a soap opera – and a run of the mill one, I might add. Jane meets and falls in love with a church choir director, who eventually becomes a “friend of the family” (cough), and helps to care for Hawking. She remains faithful to her husband, though, and in time sends the choir boy on his way and hires a nurse for Hawking. I’m sure you can see the next chapter coming from a mile away. I did, and that’s when I began checking the time.

Once “Theory” wanders down this path, it never turns back, but rather ends at what feels like a random point. I left in awe of the first half of the movie, and frustrated by the second half.

That said, “Theory” has its finer qualities, the performance of Eddie Redmayne as Hawking being foremost among them. Redmayne not only nails the complex physical aspects of the role – which could not have been easy – but also managed to project the intelligence, humor, and humanity of Hawking through the veil of the disease. His portrayal of the celebrate physicist is so spot on, it’s uncanny, and should bring him many accolades come award season.

I also liked some of the writing. For example, in the scene in which the doctor is delivering the bad news, Hawking asks, “What about my mind?” The physician assures him the disease will not touch his mind, but will leave his thoughts intact. “Eventually, though, no one will know what those thoughts are,” the doctor says. It’s a tragic diagnosis, made triumphantly ironic by Hawking’s long life. (He’s still alive and kicking at 72 years of age.) If the doctor had been right, we’d be living in a world in which he’d never written “A Brief History of Time.”

“Theory” also concludes with a poignant scene that visually echoes cosmological theories about the universe collapsing into nothing. After enduring the vaporous material that comprises the second half of the movie, it made me long to see the better movie I believe Hawking’s life can provide.

When Hawking saw “The Theory of Everything,” he told director James Marsh the film was “broadly true.” Marsh was thrilled, but I believe Stephen was damning with faint praise. No worries; if theories about the collapse of the universe are right, the film will someday be reduced to nothing.

Two-and-a-half stars out of four. Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material. David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. He wishes someone would make a movie about his college astronomy professor, the remarkable Dr. Jay White. Just leave out the soap. Contact him at dlaprad@hamiltoncountyherald.com.