A couple years ago, there was this movie called Lincoln. It grossed $275 million worldwide, racked up a 90 percent Tomatometer, and earned two Academy Awards (Best Actor and Best Production Design) out of a staggering twelve nominations (including Best Picture). It was a good picture and it was very well-received. I bring the movie up because it was a biopic that didn’t try to summarize the entire life of Abraham Lincoln. Instead, it portrayed the last four months of Lincoln’s life, using that little slice of life to represent the greater whole.
Why is that so hard?!
No, really, why hasn’t this approach caught on? I completely fail to understand why biopic filmmakers continue to persist in cramming years — even decades — of story into two hours’ running time. Not only does it cheapen the source material, but it practically guarantees that the resulting story will not be clearly focused or well-paced.
Case in point: The Theory of Everything.
Based on the memoirs of Hawking’s first wife (Jane Hawking, played here by Felicity Jones), this film tells the story of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) from their first meeting up to their eventual divorce. This translates roughly from 1963 to 1988, encompassing everything from Hawking’s doctorate to “A Brief History of Time.” Though of course his deteriorating health is the primary thrust of the story.
To get the positives out of the way, Redmayne and Jones are both phenomenal. Hawking’s health and mobility steadily decrease as the movie continues, and Redmayne’s portrayal of the transformation is astonishing. Yet Hawking is known to be a very witty man of surprising humor and energy, and that comes through in Redmayne’s performance as well. Physically and emotionally, Redmayne does an incredible job shouldering such an iconic personality.
(Side note: I understand that the real Stephen Hawking gave the film his full blessing, such that he graciously agreed to “voice” the onscreen Hawking in the film’s third act. So the film’s Hawking is speaking with the exact same electronic voice as the genuine article. That’s a neat little authentic touch, no?)
As for Jones, she does a fine job playing a woman of great strength, very slowly buckling under the pressure of this immensely difficult relationship. It’s the classic problem of trying to maintain her own life while raising three children, but compounded by the stress of nursing a man with a condition so crippling that he (by all rights) should have died ages ago. Oh, and he’s also a world-famous genius who’s probably the greatest physicist since Einstein.
Yet Jane still comes off as an immensely strong and dedicated woman. A great example is Jonathan Jones, played by newly-minted Daredevil Charlie Cox. Jonathan quickly becomes a dear friend of the family, though he’s just as quickly established as a potential love interest for Jane. Any other woman might have taken the opportunity for an affair, as friends and family suspect Jane may have. Yet every single time there’s even a hint of possible infidelity, Jane shuts it right the fuck down. Not only do Stephen and Jane have a very powerful love for each other (bolstered by the extraordinary chemistry between Redmayne and Jones), but they will each defend it as best as they’re able.
Which makes the conclusion of their romance problematic.
The divorce obviously had to happen, but it’s done in a way that feels strangely perfunctory. There’s no big lead-up to it, and no real sense that there’s a ton of heartbreak involved. It’s like the characters just flip a switch and decide that they’re not together anymore. It’s possible that Stephen and Jane simply accepted it as the inevitable result of longtime difficulties, but there had to have been a better way of portraying that on-camera. In fact, their real-life separation was reportedly brought on by a huge argument in which the Hawkings vented years of frustrations against each other. I can’t begin to understand why the filmmakers went with the more subdued approach, considering that the entire film and the development of both characters ultimately builds up to such an anticlimax. Which brings me back to my opening remarks.
Because the movie had to roll through two decades in two hours, a lot of sacrifices of course had to be made for the sake of streamlining the story. Predictably, this means leaning heavily on cliches, stereotypes, rushed scenes, etc. To start with, this means that Hawking’s greatest accomplishments either happen entirely offscreen or get glossed over with minimal screen time. For instance, there’s the scene in which Hawking presents his dissertation. This is the thing that Hawking’s entire academic life has been working towards, and his PhD is at stake, so this should’ve been treated as a hugely important milestone that Hawking really had to fight for. Instead, it’s three guys at a table who basically say “Yup. This is awesome. Congrats, you’re a doctor.” And they do it in pretty much that exact level of detail in as much time.
This was a golden opportunity to better acquaint mainstream pop culture with the reasons why we know Stephen Hawking as a genius, presenting his work and his theories in visually compelling and easily understandable means. But of course, that wasn’t the goal of the movie. It was based on his wife’s memoirs, after all. So instead, the movie works to humanize Stephen Hawking by portraying his first marriage. Yet that fails to work because, again, the story has been so thoroughly condensed. The movie goes through cliches and character development at such a fast pace that there’s never any illusion of meeting the actual Stephen Hawking. No matter how wonderful Redmayne’s portrayal of a fictionalized Hawking may be, it’s still only a fictionalized Hawking. Ditto for Jones and her character.
Moreover, the vast majority of Hawking’s screen time goes toward his development with regards to his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Everything we’re shown about Hawking’s career and family life come down to how they were affected by his illness. It’s a huge part of his life, sure, but human beings are multifaceted creatures. When the film spends so much more time on the disease than the person, it becomes that much more difficult to take the lead character seriously as a fleshed-out human being.
So does the film work as an uplifting portrayal of a man who defied all odds to change the world? Well, yeah. Sure. Absolutely. But we already have umpteen other inspirational films that were based on true stories. We don’t need another, and this story deserved better treatment than that. The works of Stephen Hawking lend themselves to profound statements about our place in the universe, and his continued survival is a testament to the powers of science and human ingenuity. Yet the best this movie could offer are a few half-baked statements about the conflict of religion and science, and a romance arc that fizzles out in an anticlimax. Not good enough.
The Theory of Everything has two incredible lead performances, both of which add to the movie’s overpowering sweetness and charm. I could pardon another movie for getting by on charm, but not this one. This story deserved better. As soon as the filmmakers decided to try and compress such an eventful life and such jaw-dropping work into a two-hour movie, the project was DOA. This movie does not have the brains (or the screen time) to portray Stephen Hawking or his accomplishments in any kind of creative or intellectual way. It can only offer so many cliches that amount to the same inspirational messages we’ve heard so many other times before.
I could understand checking the movie out on Netflix. I’d maybe even recommend buying a second-run ticket with adjusted expectations. But going out of your way to pay a first-run ticket for a limited release? Nuh uh. Not worth it.