The Theory of Everything – A character-powered yet unexceptional experience

It’s quite ironic that two movies that revolve around scientific advancements in space-time should release the same year and equally that both should be extremely polarizing. It’s also interesting to note that the same Kip Thorne that provides the scientific basis for Interstellar be continuously put down by the subject of The Theory of Everything. Interesting, that’s the word. I have watched my fair share of Hollywood’s takes on biopics, and it seems there is a clear, set-in-stone formula for these things that shall never be challenged for the most part. If I was to describe my feelings while watching this movie in one word, that would be ‘unnecessary’. While I’m not implying that this is a bad film, it does come with a million moments of groaning and déjà vu. While being the obligatory scientific biopic that has its run at the Oscars every year, underneath the story, there are a few gems and treasures that make it different from the rest.

There is not much to discuss about the plot here. If you’ve seen A Beautiful Mind, and your basic knowledge of who Stephen Hawking is, then it would be safe to say you know half of everything that is to happen in this movie. And while Ron Howard’s tale of John Nash is highly beloved and excellent, I am not too happy with how much Theory reminds me of it. Protagonist is a genius student in a prestigious University, exceeding the rest of the class in strides. He gets an epiphany and starts a potentially ground-breaking work that he puts all into. He meets the love interest, and falls like a fool for her. Work and relationship tug at each other, causing strains in both. Finally having succeeded in his work, things go wrong in the household. If I told you any more than that, then you would have the full movie. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a rant and I am not entirely dismissing The Theory of Everything. It is sad that this formula will not die out anytime soon is something we have to accept and live with. I am not making an unrealistic complaint with regard to the story itself which is a true one, and therefore expected to be repetitive, but just exclaiming that there seems to have been more than one way to tell the story. The film makes nothing in the direction of surprises or different that I can see separating it from countless others. I cannot say I am underwhelmed, as I did not have high expectations for this going in.

The film does get one thing right though, and that is the sublime balance between the room given to science and theories themselves, and the emotional relationships between its humans. While Interstellar attempts to showcase an epic space odyssey jammed with delicious drops of science, at the same time cramming in a rather rushed human affair, The Theory of Everything knows what it needs to be, and that is the exploration of characters around Dr. Hawking’s life. It takes very gently to the science of space-time and delivers in teaspoons to the public. It is made clear that the actual science is not the highlight of this touching tale, as is made starkly evident from the lack of scientific writing in the air mirroring the genius’ brilliant mind at work. Instead, even in the moments where Stephen literally etches equations and formulas on the blackboard, the limelight is shone on his receding motor abilities. It is only pleasing to the audience when a film knows what it is, and attempts to show just that in the most effective manner, rather than create a conundrum out of failed attempts at exploring vast expanses of space and time alongside trying to garner emotion through moving relationships. (No offence to anyone is intended) The Theory of Everything sets out the ground from the very first scene in the party, with those connecting glances of a cheeky nerd and a beautiful young lady, that the business it means in our minds is a play purely on emotions.

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While the general direction the plot took was indeed generic, the film did explore quite a few character arcs that are not done quite so in others. One example that clearly stands out above the rest is the character of Jane Wilde, delivered in an excellent performance by Felicity Jones. What directors often miss out on is the fact that movies are remembered for the most by the characters portrayed therein, and that holds so much more value when adapting a true story of real people leading very real lives. The line that has to be stressed is either work them or leave them. It is folly to include blank uninteresting characters for the sake of it, leaving empty holes in the film where the heart is supposed to be. I am relieved to say that The Theory of Everything succeeds on this front, as none of the persistent characters are left hanging or blank pages which are left to be filled in till the very end. This film thrives in the strength of the supporting characters it plays with, something that we saw earlier in The Social Network. But it would be wrong to tag Jones’ Jane Wilde as a supporting character as she is the emotional driving point of the movie, and it seems very much more a story of her struggle as it is a biography of the revered Dr. Hawking. This is also a starkly different approach as compared to other films belonging to this genre, as the genius is magnified engulfing the canvas, the female love interest is left just that, an amusement for the protagonist on his journey, and an anchor. This film unexpectedly shifts the focus from Dr. Hawking to Jane, and explores the female character to an unparalleled extent. It is extremely enticing a character sketch that is portrayed and manages to add nuances to the otherwise clichéd tale. Instead of experiencing the scientist through his own mind, we are asked to experience it through the minds of others around him, and the mark he managed to leave.

The direction of this film seems befitting any biography and again, it is not exceptional in any way, but truly manages to capture the life and shades of his life. There were moments which seemed borrowed from a million others, and at the same time, there were a few precious ones that enlarged and intensified the quaint love story at the heart of it all. It would suffice to say that the film is well-made in no exceptional or artistic manner, but with a warm glow that perpetuates through the scenes that would either move you or leave you groaning, the awfully polarizing movie that it is. There will be viewers who love this look into the days of Dr. Hawking, and at the same time people who hate it for the constantly repeated story that it is. What it is, is non-pretentious, no surprise as having been made by a former documentarian. But the tools of his previous trade do seem to leave splotches all over this one, many a moment made to feel like a documentary, and with the over-pronounced use of hand-held camerawork for weddings and social events. Overall, the direction was unexceptional yet beautiful in its own right. That might have been very much what this movie needed, but did leave me underwhelmed and yawning for quite a few parts, more than comfortable.

Coming to the highlight of the show, in the midst of all these mixed feelings and stories is a grinning Dr. Stephen Hawking, most exceptionally brought to life by Eddie Redmayne. I had heard rumours of his performance prior to the movie, but I was not expecting this. Redmayne was immaculate in his portrayal, and he especially shines through the constraints of the script, and legible speech altogether for that matter, in those powerful moments where he feels the disease taking a hold of him. There are also quite a few treasured glances between Dr. Hawking and Jane which, with a slight nod of his eyebrow, he is able to bring to life. I can only assume that the real Hawking is extremely pleased at Eddie for this memorable portrait, a glance into his eyes. Another point that needs to be appreciated more is the extent of realness that is felt with the transformation of Eddie Redmayne to Dr. Stephen Hawking, one which is as close as anyone can get to the original. The catharsis from a nerdy student with an impish grin to the world renowned wise academician is marvellous to observe, and the artists are able to capture the age and experience of the scientist, while keeping in his eyes the twinkle and mischief of the kid he was once, and will always be. Redmayne is most worthy of an Oscar for this role, as he delivers a role stepping outside his body, leaving only Dr. Hawking to be seen on screen. The film is in fact elevated solely due to the fleeting performances of its leads, without which this film would be very non-polarizing, in the worst way.

All in all, I find this one to be a perfectly fine movie, nothing exceptional and nothing special in the story, but everything found in the heart, a painting of human struggle and relationships painted by the two very talented actors. It is altogether unexceptional, yet expectedly so; and saved only by the direction that the actors took their characters in. This stands out from the huge array of biopics for the sole unique exploration provided to the female character, and the dimmed light on actual science and theories. I wouldn’t say this is a must-watch for everybody, I myself cannot imagine myself sitting through this one again. But if you are a fan of excellent acting, then it is definitely worth one shot, which is what I don’t regret. But for the time being, when it comes to biopics, I will stick to The Social Network.

Rating: 6.5/10

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One thought on “The Theory of Everything – A character-powered yet unexceptional experience

  1. Pingback: The Winners of 2015 – The Golden Globes | DavidandStan Movies

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