The Theory of Everything – Black Holes filled with treacle and saccrine soaked time. (Film Review)
There is something unsavory about the bio-pics in 2014 that I have yet to put my finger on, but seem to have a lot to do with using a famous person for the sole purpose of motivating a dying-to-be-inspired audience in the wake of our universal conviction that the bio-pic can’t really get to the heart of its subject and we don’t want to make sycophantic films like Attenborough’s Gandhi anymore. 2013’s Mandela: the long road to Freedom was a failed film that genuinely tried to get to an unbiased heart of its other-worldly subject, yet tripped under the weight of its own earnestness. The earnestness can’t save us from making a bad film, and I might even be so bold as to say we’ve worked out that we can’t get to the heart of complex subjects like the human individual, particularly one who suffers under the weight of any sort of fame or notoriety. We collectively contend the myth of the individual that we created belongs to us and is as right and worthy as any version of any truth of their life might be anyhow.
But does it necessarily follow that every film must be a schmaltzy version of that projection? Stephen Hawking is, undoubtedly an individual whose occasional unpleasantness (and downright stupidity in some cases) is overlooked on behalf of his science rock-star status, and while he’s no hero of mine, I do understand why people love him and want to see him projected as a pinnacle of greatness, and I wholeheartedly support that. But how do we go about that and what purpose does it serve, particularly in the wake of Errol Morris documentary (a far better medium for looking at celebrities, if we really must have one) A Brief History of Time. Should Stephen Hawking be reduced to a motivational icon – I get him more than you get him; I appropriate and assimilate his genius more than you appropriate and assimilate his genius – that we brandish about as proof of our own brilliance?
Unfortunately, The Theory of Everything comes across as precisely that, only in this case it is director James Marsh that seems to be informing us of his brilliance via his unique ability to understand Hawking better than anyone. Marsh uses horrible transitional clichés such as the turn of a bicycle wheel (referencing the universe and… you guessed it… a wheelchair) the rotation family and friends around Hawking as if he were the centre of the universe (Eddie Redmayne) and even the Godard coffee swirl (!) to sign post that we (he) can all see what Hawking saw. We soon come to see that the only reason The Theory of Everything needed to be made was because James Marsh didn’t make A Brief history of Time and James Marsh needs us to know that he gets Hawking.
James Marsh and I should add, writer Anthony McCarten who also goes to great pains to ‘simplify’ Hawking for us uber-dummies.
It’s ungenerous of me I know, but one gets a sense of this with such overwhelming intensity that it is impossible to ignore it. As I said above, I am ambivalent toward Hawking, but to take a brilliant mind twisted into a prison of a body and imagine that his interest in the objectification of females (a significant portion of the film is given over to an insistence that Hawking is a ‘real dude’ under all that, you know… ‘creepy shit’) is because ‘boys will be boys’ is an appalling tipy-toe around the horrifying truth of what it must be like to be such a mind trapped in such a body. Not that Hawking may have an issue with bodies, not that Hawking may have a deep seated horror/revulsion/envy/fascination or informed knowing born of years of suffering about the projection of the flawless female body that manifests in dark desire – no! Marsh wants to appeal to the lowest form of human understanding when he skirts the uncomfortable issue of Hawking’s refusal of his long-suffering wife. While I have no problem with Marsh wanting to preserve Hawking’s reputation, he could have done it with respect to his subject, rather than pretending he was above all that, and using Penthouse magazine to explain one of the most complicated public infidelities in history. But here we come back to the purpose of the bio-pic, and particularly this bio-pic. It is not intended to take a good close look at Stephen Hawking. It’s unapologic intension is to use Stephen Hawking to make stupid things look intelligent.
For all that, The Theory of Everything does have some pretty images by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme and decent performances. Eddie Redmayne is competent enough. It is a performance as paint by numbers as the rest of the film, but let’s face it, this isn’t an easy role to play and there is a lot of excruciating close up’s as the disease makes its way to the surface of Redmayne’s body. Felicity Jones is a fine actress who seems to always be able to dish up the goods, so her nuanced delicate portrayal of Jane Wilde is a pleasure to watch, if nothing particularly spectacular. The music by Jóhann Jóhannsson is as dewy-eyed as the rest of the film and basically gets in the way more than it helps.
On the whole, this is an unremarkable film about a truly remarkable man that one wonders if we have any right at all to make.