New Biopic Is a Brief (And Shallow) History of Stephen Hawking

Despite a striking performance by Eddie Redmayne, 'The Theory of Everything' turns Hawking into a melodramatic hero instead of exploring his complex persona.

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in 'The Theory of Everything.' A lack of depth.
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

The Theory of Everything Directed by James Marsh; written by Anthony McCarten, based on the memoir by Jane Hawking; with Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Maxine Peake, David Thewlis, Emily Watson

The British physicist Stephen Hawking is a famous man. Most people who go to see James Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything” probably know his story already; some of them also may have bought, and maybe even read, his international 1988 best-seller “A Brief History of Time.” What we need to ask about Marsh’s movie, then, is whether it tells us anything we didn’t already know about Hawking, and whether it offers a complex portrayal of him. The answer to both questions is no.

Marsh and his screenwriter, Anthony McCarten, faced several immediate limitations in this project. In 1963, the 21-year-old Hawking was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, after the famous baseball player who brought it to public awareness. The doctors said Hawking had two years to live; but he survived – and is still with us. Making a movie about a living figure, and a culture hero at that, who is also a father and grandfather, requires considerable caution. Even more caution is called for when the screenplay is based on a memoir that was written by his ex-wife, Jane Hawking, and is considered an official biography. Hawking left Jane for another woman, but she remained his friend, and her sympathy and respect for him have not diminished. Marsh’s movie therefore starts out from the same position of sympathy and respect. Well-deserved as these are, they create a character that seems throughout like only a part of the real Stephen Hawking.

British actor Eddie Redmayne (known to us mainly from the films “Les Miserables” and “My Week with Marilyn”) deserves high praise for his portrayal of Hawking. Redmayne, who bears a certain physical resemblance to the great scientist, does an excellent job. He does not let his performance become too immersed in the fact that his character is sinking deeper and deeper into disability, his body collapsing around a brain that remains as sharp as ever. Avoiding the potential theatricality of such a role, Redmayne makes the hero’s illness and disability seem low-key and believable, so that his performance does not draw attention to itself as applause-worthy.

However, the screenplay does not give Redmayne a lot to work with. Of course, we are introduced to some of Hawking’s main theories, but since they are complicated, and since movies don’t usually like long scientific lectures, this aspect of the story comes down to two points. First, there is Hawking’s desire to find one theory that explains all the phenomena in our universe; and second – and here we come to a particular favorite of popular cinema – there is the question of whether Hawking’s theories prove or disprove the existence of God. The latter issue is amplified because Jane Hawking herself was a religious woman, who even found an outlet from her demanding marriage as a singer in the local church choir.

Hawking himself did seek to popularize his theories, but the way the movie handles them is not just popular; it is shallow. Moreover, there is almost no mention of Hawking’s politics (other than a caption at the end telling us that he refused to be knighted by the Queen). Naturally, the movie steers clear of his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his activism in favor of nuclear disarmament, and the fact that he described the fighting in Iraq as a war crime.

Hawking, as played by Redmayne, is a mischievous man given to endearing smiles (or are they spasms?). What the movie does not offer us is the portrait of a sick, disabled man who never stopped traveling (he visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority several times, and in 2013 canceled his planned participation in the Israeli Presidential Conference), sought out fame and publicity, and liked to spend time with celebrities such as Steven Spielberg (leading to sharp denunciations by some of his opponents). After all, this was also the man who offered to appear on an episode of “Star Trek,” had cameo roles in “The Simpsons” and “The Big Bang Theory,” and gave his mechanical voice to a Pink Floyd song. These sides of Stephen Hawking are all absent from “The Theory of Everything,” whose hero is simply a smart, sweet man who refused to let his illness defeat him. That man deserves sympathy and admiration, but remains only a partial character.

As a result, his relationship with his wife is also not very deep, despite Felicity Jones’ skillful performance as Jane Hawking (Jones was very impressive a few months ago as Charles Dickens’ forgotten young lover in “The Invisible Woman”). Her crises are presented more as information than as a genuine attempt to show us a woman who undertook a difficult commitment in the name of love. Stephen and Jane’s falling in love is a kind of romance story that unfolds against the glorious backdrop of Cambridge University, while the rest of the relationship is presented with a dry, factual correctness that fails to bring us into the heart of this marriage. Jane’s evolving relationship with Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), her widowed choir leader, who eventually became part of the Hawking family, is a somewhat saccharine bit that is handled gently, but nothing more.

If “The Theory of Everything” is worth seeing, it is for Eddie Redmayne’s performance. As a brief history of Stephen Hawking and his survival, however, what we have here is at most an obedient biopic that, albeit informative for those who know nothing about Hawking, turns him into the melodramatic hero of a limited drama – a work whose circumscribed nature clashes sharply with the cosmic reach of Hawking’s work and vision.