“The Theory of Everything” offers a poignant look into Hawking’s relationships

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Andrew White Cleary, staff writer

“The Theory of Everything,” based on a true story, follows the life of British physicist Stephen Hawking up to the publication of his landmark scientific text, “A Brief History of Time.”

The film’s narrative has not exactly garnered universal praise. Director James Marsh chooses to focus on Hawking’s family life and illness, perhaps more so than on Hawking’s scientific contributions. This approach is likely to provoke divided responses from audiences. “The Theory of Everything” begins roughly in the way many biopics about scientists would: some establishment of setting, followed by a scientist explaining a yet-to-be-proven theory. After that, however, Marsh’s choice of exploring Hawking’s relationship with Jane Wilde becomes clear. By the time the publication of “A Brief History of Time” is dramatized, the running time has nearly elapsed. For this reason, many who want a detailed and comprehensive look at Hawking’s science will need to look elsewhere.

But, simultaneously, the subject matter is a strength: through its focus on romance, “The Theory of Everything” will actually tell many viewers things they didn’t know. Hawking’s story is not a simple boy-meets-girl affair; his relationships had considerable drama, and by telling a love story, one could say the film provides a new light through which to see Hawking: not only that of a brilliant scientist, but also that of a respectful and responsible man who perseveres, with much assistance from his wife, through a tragic illness. This character development is strengthened by Eddie Redmayne’s impressive acting.

“The Theory of Everything” also boasts strong cinematography. Set pieces can be richly colorful, with shots sometimes bringing to mind the idiosyncratic works of Wes Anderson. The interiors of Hawking and Jane’s house, or a party scene in which the two watch fireworks, are all visually pleasing. The film often has effective camerawork, albeit not always. The real-life Hawking had been experiencing increased clumsiness, a factor which, among other things, led people to suggest he seek medical help. A scene in the film shows Hawking tripping and falling on the Oxford University campus, dropping books and banging his chin to the ground. The shot is done from shoulder-height, and in mostly stationary shots. After the fall, a high-pitched tone, sounding straight out of a horror movie, plays. This scene could have been better-made. A shot from the ground during Hawking’s fall would have better conveyed the injury; then we would have first seen him from the top (towering above the camera), his body coming closer and closer to camera height as he fell.

Still, the rest of the filmmaking is often strong. In one sequence, Hawking, his wife, and a guest are conversing at a dinner table. Hawking is unable to eat any food because his hand spasms; he then saunters toward the stairs, leaving his wife and the guest behind in the other room, and simply sits down. The shot records Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne) from the top of the staircase. Therefore he is small in the frame, conveying his despair. In another scene, Hawking is sitting in a wheelchair. A friend lifts him up and carries him up a staircase in front of them. This scene lasts for around a minute, and in a couple of shots a Dutch tilt angle (in which the camera is tilted slightly to the left or right, to represent uneasiness) appears. While the scene generally has a jovial, upbeat tone, the slight tilt is visually indicative of why he is being carried up, and of the fact that he has a degenerative illness.

Perhaps it is reasonable to criticize the film’s focus on a love story, but this provides for an interesting form of character development. The characters are also well-developed as a result of the acting – Eddie Redmayne, in the lead role, is particularly strong. Grade: a high B+.