When a movie opens with that foreboding “Based on a True Story” title sequence, I find myself innately distracted, questioning everything and anything pertaining to the plots’ validity. And when that plot happens to tell the story of (arguably) the most brilliant mind of the 21st century? I find myself questioning the vision of the director as well.
Structured as a revealing tale of heartbreak and inspiration, The Theory of Everything attempts to walk the fine line between cinematic conventionality and mortal abnormality.
Directed by James Marsh and written by Anthony McCarten, The Theory of Everything is first and foremost a biopic about physicist Stephen Hawking and his search for answering the world’s most inconceivable questions. Inspired by the memoir “Traveling to Infinity”, the film explores the personal and professional journey of Hawking and his wife, Jane, through Hawking’s battle with the devastating motor-neuron disease, ALS.
Strong acting performances require empathy on both sides of a story. And to say that lead actor Eddie Redmayne succeeded in the portrayal of Hawking would be a massive understatement. Anytime an actor can cause physical unease to the point of queasiness gets the nod in my book, and that’s exactly what Redmayne did. His complete transformation into Hawking was evident as soon as he came on screen. His mannerisms, hovering shoulders, and crooked glasses were adopted seemingly effortlessly on the big screen for Redmayne, whose Oscar nomination should be arriving in the mail shortly.
While the initial meeting and eventual relationship between Hawking and Jane plays out like a fairy tale, I struggled to believe their chemistry. Director James Marsh played off of the dramatic boy-meets-girl a little too much – to the point that it lost authenticity. With no obvious romantic catalyst in play at the time of their acquaintance besides beauty and brains, the plot almost forces the audience to believe in love at first sight.
However, it is set up to answer a question Hawking poses to a Cambridge friend at a crucial point in the first act: “What if the secret of the universe had to do with sex?” This subsequent event foreshadows a telling realization that would affect the outcome of Hawking’s professional life and, more importantly in The Theory of Everything, his romantic life.
What if love at first sight did exist? And what if the romantic catalyst in their relationship was simply the mysticism of the universe? After all, we came from dust and will return to dust. And isn’t that what living a life of value is all about? Searching the world for a companion is something we all can relate to, but for Stephen Hawking it wasn’t enough.
As his horizons expand, he dreams of “one single unifying equation that explains everything in the universe.”
At its core, The Theory of Everything tells a universal story about battling illness and love. The film doesn’t even pretend to concern the audience with the extensive scientific work of Hawking. His theories about black holes, a space-time singularity and quantum mechanics would usually float right over-head. Because this isn’t a story about Stephen Hawking the physicist. This is the story of Stephen Hawking the man. And James Marsh found a relatively digestible way to correlate Hawking’s ideas into tangible plot points that run parallel with his physical decline.
The mind is a beautiful thing, but the betrayal of the mind by the body is a brutal struggle. Finding the meaning of life has always been at the top of Stephen Hawking’s to-do list, frequently surpassing his three children and devoted wife Jane.
In the last scene, Hawking and Jane experience a defining moment together in the courtyard. As they sit observing their three children promenading in the distance, Hawking scrupulously selects a chain of letters from the streaming alphabet – building the most significant line of the entire movie:
“Look what we made.”
In the end, our quest for finding meaning in life will never falter. And whether we like to admit it or not, we most likely will never find it. Why, you might ask?
Because it doesn’t technically exist.
If the most brilliant mind of the 21st century cannot find the answer, then you might as well settle in and enjoy the ride.
The meaning of life is subjective, and that’s the way it should be. Just take it from Stephen Hawking.