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It’s a strange line to balance on, the true story of a real person as told in a biographical drama. One’s real life might be extraordinary, but the re-enactment of that life may be less so in the time constraints of a modern film. Often, people’s real lives in movies boil down to a string of particularly interesting moments, pieced together in a collage of emotional ups and downs, glossing over some events or creating whole new ones to add a little extra lift. Such is the case with The Theory of Everything, a story of one of mankind’s most impressive and significant people, beautifully brought to life on screen, but like the heavens the man has spent a lifetime studying, empty between the shiny bits.
It’s somewhat fitting that I chose to start this with the analogy of balancing on a line as director James Marsh is perhaps best known for the exceptional 2008 documentary Man on Wire about tightrope walker Philippe Petit‘s quest to cast a line between the World Trade Towers and walk between them. That film shined a light on the man and his dream, and his insatiable thirst for challenge. showcasing his work and story in re-enactments, interviews, and images. It is a stirring experience.
Here, Marsh captures much of the dramatic life of famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking in similar stunning fashion, though it is not intended to be a documentary. Marsh photographs his subjects and the environments with exceptional care, attending to the finest details and Eddie Redmayne is absolutely transformed into the famously wheelchair-bound scientist. His portrayal is sensitive and emotionally engaging, that’s both respectful and driven, a powerful statement about courage and humanity.
The story is adapted from a book by Hawking’s first wife, Jane (Felicity Jones), and chronicles that relationship from where they met at university, she a devout Christian and he an atheist, their beliefs put aside in a mutual capacity for curiosity. Their early romance is one based on the properties of science and exploration of such. Indeed, the two are the very picture of happiness until he begins to lose his footing and eventually can’t control his movements. He’s diagnosed with a rare early-onset, slow-progressing form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and worse, he’s told he has two years to live. Naturally, Hawking tries to persuade Jane to leave him, but she won’t quit him, and they marry. In the years that follow, the have three children as Hawking defies expectation.
The disease ravages him, leaving him contorted in a wheelchair and using a computer voice box to communicate. Meanwhile, he becomes a world-wide recognized theoretical physicist, a celebrity of sorts who brings his complex theories to the curious masses in a ways most can understand. The film handles this aspect well, and indeed, while it’s not easy to watch the man steadily curl into himself, the work he does is presented with some imaginative and even suspenseful touches. Redmayne reveals a level of dedication and believability that is both undeniably inspiring and heartbreaking, recalling the work of Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989).
But despite all this, the story lags and suffers from what so many needless bio-pics end up doing, avoiding the real complexities of the subject in favor of the more contrived conflicts, glossing over significant details in order to maintain the positive sheen on the main character and put more weight on the more emotional aspects. As mentioned, it’s not a documentary, and never tries to be, but plays far too safe to be anything more than a standard Hollywood drama. However, like every movie, it has one great moment.
Hawking’s physical deterioration takes a strain on Jane and their relationship. After he loses his voice, he collapses into a shell and Jane attempts to use a Spelling Board to allow him to communicate. This eventually evolves into the computerized speech box, which gives him the power to talk and write. And so he does, authoring the international best seller, A Brief History of Time. Meanwhile, as he and Jane drift apart, he develops mutual feeling for Elaine (Maxine Peake), his newest nurse.
His gargantuan work in his field earns him tremendous praise and he is invited to the United States to accept another prestigious award. When he tells Jane about the trip, he informs her that he will taking Elaine, and that she will be taking care of him. This implication is clear. It’s a devastating moment for both of them, but inevitable. They accept the marriage has ended despite the love they have shared.
He travels with Elaine and at the ceremony, is set on a large stage in a vast open auditorium, where after his presentation, takes questions. At one point, a young college-aged girl in the front row unknowingly drops her pen. While a question muffles in his mind, his eyes and concentration drift to the floor and the pen at the girl’s feet. The world slows and in a moment of poignant imagination, he straightens his limbs, stretches his curved back, and lifts himself out of his chair. He then descends the short flight of stairs to the girl, bends to lift the pen and raises it up to her before he is pulled back to reality and is back in his seat.
Regaining his mental composure, he responds to the question about a philosophy of life that helps him keep going. He starts with a scientifically-based examination of life on Earth and expands upon this to claim that there are no boundaries and that where there is life, there is hope, earning a standing ovation.
Watch that moment closely though. What does it reveal that he stoops to pick up a pen and hand it to a student? Notice the angle of that shot, as he remains bent while he reaches up to give her the pen. This is a man who has changed the very manner in how we see the universe itself and here he offers her the chance to do the same. The pen, an instrument he no longer can use, a tool that we take for granted but in the right hands can literally alter the way we live, is his gift to her, a young, curious mind, a student with the power to do all that she can given the right tools. This is what he hopes to inspire and knows that while he physically cannot accomplish this simple task, his words can.
The moment is significant for its powerful reminder that what we have come to accept in Hawking’s physical state is only that. He is a man like any other, but trapped in a tormented shell. The importance of seeing him rise up and out of the chair is echoed in his speech, that even if his body is confined, his mind is not. He can see himself the way he once was, remember it vividly, and hold on to it with great personal pride. He has no boundaries, and nor should we.