"Look what we made."
Bear with me as I suss something out momentarily. I recently watched Howard Stern's Private Parts again and one of the things that really struck me about watching the film in 2014—17 years after it came out and 14 years after Stern and his first wife divorced—is how utterly meaningless the love story aspect of the film is now. Granted as a time capsule of their relationship and the things they went through together and how they relied on one another is still powerful, but his final summation and thesis statement for the film is now completely diminished. It was with similar apprehension that I approached the new film The Theory of Everything, based on a book by physicist Stephen Hawking's first wife Jane.
Would this film similarly falter when the audience knows the outcome? Thankfully the answer is no, but perhaps more regrettably, the film is an utter failure as a love story, and that's the angle with which the film is clearly being sold to the general public. To weigh it against another film that's perhaps a more fitting comparison, consider another award baiting romance from several years ago, Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful. That is a film which shifts its love story halfway through the film, and shows Benigni's character Guido goes from learning about love by wooing his future wife in the first half, to demonstrating unconditional love to his child in the second. This film tries to pull off a similar feat, but stumbles in a big way and never recovers.
When we're introduced to Stephen (Eddie Redmayne), he is a doctoral candidate at Cambridge in 1963, and has an appropriately awkward meet cute with graduate student Jane (Felicity Jones). Their courtship is the stuff of classic movie romances, but not long after they begin to fall for one another, Stephen is diagnosed with ALS, a motor neuron disease that the doctor tells him will claim his ability to move and eventually breathe on his own, and that he will be dead within two years. Despite Stephen's best efforts to shut Jane out, she has fallen in love with him and refuses to give up on him. They marry, and not long after Stephen is awarded his doctorate for his revolutionary theory about the formation of our universe.
So far, so good, but then the film begins to, pardon the expression, degenerate, and in a move that I would consider bold were it not so unintentional, explodes in on itself much like Hawking's initial theory about black holes and the big bang. Stephen and Jane don't necessarily fall out of love, but it's clear that neither can give the other what they truly need, despite their clear affection for one another. When Jane's mother (Emily Watson) suggests that she join the church choir, she meets hunky choir director Jonathan (Charlie Cox). Jonathan is no stranger to tragedy, having recently lost his wife to leukemia, and he begins spending more time with the family, and inevitably forms a pearl clutching chaste bond with Jane.
In the film's most egregiously manipulative scene, Stephen travels to Bordeaux, France where he suffers an attack at a concert and slips into a coma. This is juxtaposed with a camping trip Jonathan takes with Jane and her children in which we're all but shown that they finally consummate their very British attraction to one another. For a film that has spent a good deal of time arguing science versus faith, the scene is staged like something out of a misguided Christian abstinence film, showing teens that if they stray from their committed relationship, bad things will befall their significant other. It's out of place in a good film, but in a film seemingly bred in a test tube to win awards, it feels right at home.
Once Stephen loses the ability to speak, Jane brings on Elaine (Maxine Peake), a new caretaker designed to help Stephen get back in touch with the world. Pardon the expression, but Elaine basically wants to fuck Stephen's brains out the moment she lays eyes on him, and Jane is now racked with suspicion, and the film begins to resemble something that wouldn't seem out of place on Lifetime. It becomes horribly reductive, and expects us to just be okay with Stephen and Jane still loving one another, but also loving others. Were this a film about a non-monogamous relationship, that would be one thing, but the filmmakers spend the better part of an hour setting this up as a love for the ages only to pull the rug out from under the audience.
Would it have been better to ignore all of this and just show their love for one another and throw the rest of these developments into a post-film scrawl? I'm not entirely sure, but in its current state, the film is trying to have it both ways. The emotion of the film's ending will land with even the most cynical audience members, but in retrospect it feels like a cheap ploy to get you reaching for a kleenex rather than reflecting on what it actually all means. Director James Marsh is a manipulative son of a bitch, who has no shame in bombarding the more susceptible audience members into crying every five minutes or so, and his heavy hand makes the film feel like the cheap awards grab it really is at its core.
Thankfully the two leads are tremendous in the film, and their performances end up curing a multitude of sins. Redmayne is outstanding in a role that could have very easily reached I Am Sam levels of gunpoint forced empathy, but he sells the pain and anguish of Hawking's reality beautifully. Jones may not have the more physically demanding role, but she's got a tougher time with a more nuanced shift from doting to loving to suffering to frustrated, and she pulls it off with aplomb. The supporting cast from Cox and Watson to David Thewlis and Simon McBurney as Hawking's father is also top notch, with very few false notes to be found.
It's a shame that Marsh's direction and the overbearing strings of Jóhann Jóhannson's score make the film feel like an attempt to recreate A Beautiful Mind whole cloth. In fact, I jokingly referred to the film as A Beautiful Mind 2: Hawking Boogaloo, mainly because that's the exact spot in the awards season lineup this film is hoping to fill. Many will be suckered by this film's charms, and they are many, but I hope that the rest of us can see when we're being so brashly manipulated, and not succumb to the temptation to fall in love with this film. It's got some good performances, but it's also got the stench of a film that thinks it's a whole lot more Important—with a capital I—than it actually is.
GO Rating: 2/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]