You might think the biographical picture is an outmoded relic of 20th century filmmaking. If so, you obviously don’t run a major Hollywood studio. Biopics are everywhere, particularly in this year’s Oscar race, featuring Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken and three films whose leads are considered Schlage-strong-locks for Best Actor nominations: Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, and the film I’d like to examine today, The Theory of Everything, the story of Stephen Hawking’s life with his first wife, Jane. Everything hits every note on the biopic scale except the one where the film is supposed to break form long enough to show us what’s so different about this person.
George F. Custen’s 1992 study, Bio/pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History, lays out tropes that we can expect from the contemporary biopic, among them the sidekick, the mentor, the composite character, the ethereal prologue, the narrative told in flashback, the opposition of the subject’s family, and the general imperatives of a three-act structure. Dennis Bingham completes the picture in Whose Lives Are They Anyway? by separating Great Man films and films that focus on women, which find “conflict and tragedy in a woman’s success.” Bingham says that Great Man movies feature the “patient helpmeet-wife” as well as an in medias res moment, beginning the main story “just before the subject begins to make his/her mark on the world.”
Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. And check. You can’t really blame The Theory of Everything for so assiduously ticking all the boxes – they’re there for the very good reason that they work. And The Theory of Everything does counter the trope of the patient helpmeet-wife: the Jane character is as fully realized as any filmic mere “housewife” since The Bridges of Madison County. Behind every great man is a great woman with the patience and tolerance of a saint, and this Theory makes that into reality, partly thanks to Felicity Jones, whose performance is as luminous as their formal date-scene.
The first hour of Everything enjoyably takes you through every play in the biopic playbook, with the added resonance of seeing an apparently healthy person deal with the onset of Amyotrophic Lateral Syndrome…a person we know will go on to revolutionize physics and astronomy. (Between this film and the Ice Bucket Challenge, ALS is having quite a year of awareness, eh? Between this film, Interstellar, and Dumb and Dumber To – yes, Dumb and Dumber To – Hawking and his peer Kip “The Science Of Interstellar” Thorne – who is named several times in Theory of Everything – are having quite the renaissance.) The first hour admirably balances the disability, Stephen and Jane’s love story, and Stephen’s studies, which promise to explain the structure of the universe. The second hour…not so much.
As a member of the disabled community, I feel the film focuses way too much on Hawking’s physical tribulations at the expense of his physics trials. How many shots did the film need of the Hawking character’s bent feet? (They add nothing to the actor Eddie Redmayne’s clear performative virtuosity…for all we know, the film used puppet feet.) The movie loses interest in Hawking’s continuing contributions to scientific thought…we don’t even understand his job title or how he earns a regular paycheck. In the end, this is rather a disservice to Jane, our obvious storyteller, because it vaguely implies that the woman would have no interest in Big Scientific Thoughy-Thoughts. It also leaves a black hole in the plot: how is it that Hawking can’t afford to hire outside help to ease Jane’s burden, yet he’s also scooping up scientific prizes like they’re going out of style? The film is a little too much like us: stunned at the sturdy work of Redmayne and Jones, but not more.
There’s a better movie trying to break out of Everything, evidenced by the fact that the scene in which Hawking shares his revelation that he’s given up on the one unifying formula posited by his PhD thesis is the same scene in which Stephen has an introductory dinner with Jonathan, the local minister who will eventually share a romance with Jane. (As soon as Stephen saw the wily man who stole Margaret from Nucky on Boardwalk Empire, he should have run him over with his wheelchair.) Why didn’t the film use (barely perceptible, if necessary) celestial imagery to suggest something about the mysterious powers of gravity and magnetism and time/space, where forces do so much more than randomly collide? At dinner with Jonathan and Jane, when Hawking reverses course in his studies, that could have been the perfect moment for (sharply-cut, if they wanted) imagery showing galactic forces’ natural repelling, showing the black hole that we all fight inside all of us. We could have so fluidly moved from the delicately glowing orbs in that formal date-scene to something more carnal and destructive. The script set the table, but the director left a more dynamic, creative film on that table. At the film’s very end, in a speedy flashback, the director suggests the mediation/meditation on time that the film could have been, but never was. That’s not fair to Hawking, or the film’s theme written so indelibly on Hawking’s speech monitor: TIME. Dozens of other films have made the type of creative use of time and space suggested by Hawking’s work.
This isn’t the first time this director, James Marsh, has looked at the edge of the sky and chosen to remain earthbound. A lot of people admired his Man on Wire (2008), but I thought it was strange to have subjects talking, talking, talking about a man who crossed the two World Trade Center buildings on a wire without eventually showing some kind of footage of that stunt. Marsh didn’t have more than photos, but that shouldn’t have stopped him from recreating aspects of it…not to the point of pretending to show more than he could, but provding some snippets to pay off the narrative investments. Errol Morris proved that re-enactments could be done with artistic integrity when he made The Thin Blue Line (1988), a film with judiciously staged footage that convinced a jury to spare an innocent man’s life.
After Morris’ many accolades for that film, his next project was A Brief History of Time (1991), a film based partly on Hawking’s theories but mostly on the amazing person that is Stephen Hawking. For his interstellar imagery, Morris borrowed liberally from people like the Eames brothers (and their Powers of 10), but I’m not sure that Marsh did Morris better by not borrowing any cosmological imagery at all (until the credits). Instead of transcending biopic tropes, the movie follows them by revealing twists through dialogue, but that means we have no idea how we’re meant to feel about a biopic that (admirably, untypically) ends with our lovers breaking up. When Everything arrives at Stephen and Jane’s breakup scene, we don’t feel enough for them to understand if Jane’s invocation of “They gave you two years!” is meant to suggest that she was only planning to be in this affair for two years, or if they should be bittersweetly savoring the achievement of the 20 or so that they’ve lasted. “A little bit of both” may be a fine answer for humanities students, but it won’t do for astrophysicists and shouldn’t have done for a film called The Theory of Everything.