“The Theory of Everything” – Reviewby Daliah Leslie | November 7, 2014
I had some expectations when I learned there was to be a feature film on the life of Stephen Hawking. Like many others, I felt pretty confident that I was in for an experience filled with scientific terms I couldn’t spell, much less find engaging.
Like a lot of the arguments currently flooding the blogosphere in reaction to The Theory of Everything, I entered the theater wondering how the average layperson would understand, must less relate to the scientific content that is crucial to understanding the main character.
Adding to my nay-saying predictions was a fear that I was in for another “famous person conquers famous disease” formula flick. In retrospect, I admit having a personal connection to the film’s subject colored my expectations going into the film.
Martin Greene was a history teacher, a political activist, a book collector and my grandfather. Because he passed before I was born, one of the only things I knew about him – similar to the only thing many of us know about Stephen Hawking — is that he had ALS. After hearing family accounts of what it was like to live with Lou Gherig’s Disease, I knew I would be on my guard, fully expecting this film to distort and romanticize the realities of this horrible disease. Perhaps what I feared most was the possibility that the disease would overwhelm the film.
To my surprise and delight, this was one of the many obstacles that producer and screenwriter Anthony McCarten, along with director James Marsh, overcame.
McCarten was fully aware of the challenges he faced with this project. In fact, it took eight years of rejection before he gained the rights and support required to fulfill his dream of bringing this story to the screen. Many had little faith that a story filled with physics jargon and with a central character who is physically immobilized would be interesting to audiences.
McCarten was adamant not to tell the story solely from Hawkin’s point of view. Rather, MacCaten decided from the beginning to write the screenplay based on Jane Hawking’s autobiography, Traveling to Infinity.
When I discussed with McCarten the many obstacles this project faced, it became clear he never feared them; in fact, he welcomed them as artistic challenges. Above all else, he was determined to show the many different sides, perspectives and details of a story many believe they already know.
For example, co-producer Lisa Bruce noted, “A lot of people don’t even think about Stephen Hawkin’s domestic life, much less know that he walked and talked. And they certainly don’t know that he fathered children.”
This humanistic approach gives the viewer a deeper and unique look into this man’s life, allowing the viewer to see more than the iconic genius. We see a father, a husband and a life filled with hope and humor.
McCarten, noted that among his biggest challenges was how to present the sometimes incomprehensible concepts and present them in a manner that is both digestible and relatable to the common viewer.
One effective technique employed was the use of humor. Humor, perhaps more than any other technique, creates a bridge that allows viewers to relate to the most foreign of subjects, and devastating of circumstances. An example can be seen when we are first introduced to Hawking’s newly engineered wheelchair, attached with a speech-generating device. This scene could have been maudlin, or filled with convoluted explanations of the scientific engineering behind the device. Instead, upon hearing Hawking’s new voice, his wife Jane remarks with surprise, “It’s American.” This approach gives insight into the first appearance of the now infamous device, but does so through a true human and humorous lens. We are not simply introduced to the machine, but shown what that moment was like for these characters as real people, with real and relatable reactions.
Eddie Redmayne, who portrays Hawking with wonderful accuracy, studied his subject intently to determine how to portray Hawking’s notorious wit, his mannerisms and his outlook. He studied every twinkle in his character’s eyes, every twitch of a smile and the subtle yet incredible expressiveness of his eyebrows. His homework pays off: Redmayne is exceptional in a role where, for much of the movie, he must show emotion only through a look in his eyes. While Redmayne’s body movement work was certainly aimed at giving a realistic portrayal, it also shines light on the disease itself.
Overall, the film proved most exceptional in making the science accessible to its audience. As surprising as it may sound coming from a blog centered on examining scientific accuracy in films, I take umbrage to the argument that the film needed Hawking standing at a blackboard throughout the film.
Instead, the film showed real people struggling, explaining and discussing complex ideas in common, real-life settings. For example, during a scene in a typical domestic setting, Jane Hawking (played by Felicity Jones) uses a pea and a potato to demonstrate to her children the difference between quantum theory and general relativity. This approach shows how the complexities of the film relate in our everyday real life.
The film continued to demonstrate the science behind its subject through more subtle uses of metaphorical imagery, such as a beautiful image of cream swirling around a cup of coffee (i.e the region around a black hole).
On a slightly more personal note, the portrayal of motor neuron disease was more than accurate. It was truly quite astonishing. I was shocked at how seemingly flawless Redmayne’s portrayal was. The hands that became not just immobile, but misshapen; the sharpness of the mind reflected in the eyes of the otherwise deadened body; it all rang true.
Redmayne knew the challenge he took on with this role. Redmayne shared his tireless work with vocal coach Julia Wilson-Dickson and movement director Alex Reynolds. Redmayne explained, “I felt I had a responsibility of portraying this as a real condition.” In order to live up to this responsibility Redmayne consulted with a doctor who specializes in motor neuron disease. Redmayne then worked with Wilson-Dickson to create a climbing-numbers chart that helped him gauge what stage of deterioration he was in, in a particular scene.
This technique had a great impact on how Marsh directed and shot each scene. A character with a condition that, by definition, diminishes the amount of physical action that can take place in a given scene presented a major obstacle: how to avoid a static, boring movie?
Redmayne’s stunning physical performance helped Marsh overcome this obstacle. Marsh’s direction and actors’ — particularly Redmayne’s — performance engage the audience with the slightest shift of movement. Even if I did not have the stories of my grandfather’s experience with ALS to compare with, the consuming performances result in nothing short of an accurate portrayal of both the technical and emotional elements of the disease.
In the end, this was not meant to be a science lesson. This was meant to tell an arresting story of Hawking’s struggle to overcome tremendous obstacles to prove his theories and maintain his relationships. The care and accuracy with which the filmmakers presented this is evident and rewarding.
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