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Arts & Culture

'The Theory Of Everything' Opts For Love Over Science

Eddie Redmayne stars as theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking in the new biopic, "The Theory of Everything."
Focus Features
Eddie Redmayne stars as theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking in the new biopic, "The Theory of Everything."

A New Biopic By Stephen Hawking

Film Review: The Theory of Everything
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews 'The Theory of Everything.'

ANCHOR INTRO: It’s that time of year when Hollywood trots out its Oscar hopefuls. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando says Eddie Redmayne seems assured of a nomination for his portrait of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” opening this weekend. ‘Tis the season for Oscar bait, those films studios feel assured will get the Academy voters to bite. It’s a time of year I dread because the films tend to blur into one overlong, preeningly self-important, competently made but artistically bland work. The Theory of Everything, about Stephen Hawking from his Cambridge days on, is a typical example. The acting’s strong and the technical qualities can’t be faulted, but the film’s annoyingly without passion or innovation. That’s unacceptable when depicting one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein. In the film Hawking’s story is reduced to this… CLIP If you care about me at all that please just go… I can’t… I have 2 years to live, I need to work… I love you… A love story. There’s nothing wrong with a love story per se but since the film is based on the book by Hawking’s first wife, she comes out looking like the long suffering cheerleader who pushed Hawking to all his accomplishments. Although she falls just short of sainthood, she paints a positive portrait of herself that places Hawking’s work on the periphery of the story. In the end, The Theory of Everything is a soapy, pedestrian biopic about a man who electrified the world with his ideas. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

Companion Viewing

"A Brief History of Time" (1991, Errol Morris documentary)

"Hawking" (2004, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Hawking)

"Man on a Wire" (2008)

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It’s that time of year when Hollywood trots out its Oscar hopefuls, and Eddie Redmayne seems assured of a nomination for his portrait of Stephen Hawking in “TheTheory of Everything” (opening in select San Diego theaters on Nov. 14).

‘Tis the season for what is often referred to as "Oscar bait" — you know, those films studios feel assured will get the Academy voters to bite. It’s a time of year I dread because the films tend to blur into one overlong, preeningly self-important, competently made but artistically bland work. I know I'm in the minority in this opinion and many of the films opening in the next six weeks will reap critical accolades, rack up big numbers at the box office, and garner plenty of awards. But my big complaint about these films that go for the gold is that they are predictably formulaic and creatively conservative. To me, great films take risks.

"The Theory of Everything," directed by documentary filmmaker James Marsh, is a typical example of Oscar bait.

The film serves up a portrait of Stephen Hawking, the English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author of the bestselling book "A Brief History of Time." It spans from his days at Cambridge through his battle with ALS, first marriage, and the physical challenges that left him speaking through a computer.

The acting in the film is strong especially by Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and David Thewlis as one of his encouraging professors. And the technical qualities of the film — from lighting to costumes and set design — can’t be faulted. But the film is plagued by an annoyingly lack of passion and innovation. That’s simply unacceptable when depicting a man fueled by a passion for knowledge and a refusal to conform to expectations of any kind.

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A scene between Hawking and his wife-to-be Jane typifies the problem. He pleads to be left alone because he's just been diagnosed with ALS and states "I have two years to live, I need to work." Her response is " I love you."

So the life of one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein is reduced to a love story. Now there’s nothing wrong with a love story per se but since the film is based on the book "Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen" by Hawking’s first wife Jane (played in the film by Felicity Jones), she comes out looking like the long suffering cheerleader who pushed Hawking to all his accomplishments. She seems the only one who believes he can win his battle with ALS. Although she falls just short of sainthood (she seems to succumb to infidelity), she paints a positive portrait of herself that places Hawking’s work on the periphery of the story and science as a mere backdrop. In a way it pairs well with "Interstellar," more Oscar bait, in that love rather than science is the focus.

It's not that a story focusing on love can't work. Hawking's relationship with Jane, their 25-year marriage, and the challenges they both faced could certainly make a good film but in the hands of James Marsh (who made the far more compelling documentary "Man on a Wire") it turns to mostly melodrama. The film gives us a good sense of Jane's perspective and what she is going through but — with the exception of one lovely scene at the end — it never lets us get into Hawking's head.

In the end, "The Theory of Everything" (rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material) is a soapy, pedestrian biopic about a man who electrified the world with his ideas.