The Theory of Everything (2014)


Roughly the first half of The Theory of Everything, a biopic of Stephen Hawking, is a beautiful and inspiring story of the supreme drama of the human mind, a precious and unique cognition mugged and hotly hugged in a smother by what poet Delmore Schwartz calls in a memorable poem, “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me,” his metaphor for the hulking swampish creature that eons ago crawled from somewhere like a black lagoon, a creature naturally selected in the cruelest and most impersonal of bloody conflict, within which the mind serves, a cognition that unlike the likely awareness allowed ants and elephants manages here and there to Rise Above and perhaps understand fundamental things about the almost unimaginable Place (Cosmos, Universe, State, Condition, etc) where we live and in which we each awaken in early and continuing bewilderment. As a hero here, Hawking seems poetically supreme. His ailing Heavy Bear is shutting down, becoming even more of a drag on grand thought, mystical and scientific, and so especially dramatized is his predicament as a mere human trapped in a ceaseless skin trade and yet impudently seeking one elegant equation that explains everything. The odds against him (and us) tower. He is, of course, alone. He is alone when healthy and alone as his dread disease progresses. People don’t understand his mind’s progress and, as the Heavy Bear falters, how immensely solitary are such daily struggles as ascending stairs, seated with his rump on and his back to each stair, heaving and bumping upwards step by step, to the bedroom. When you think about his ailing Heavy Bear and the dark loneliness of Hawking, and imagine a healthy pacing Einstein visiting the cafes and pondering the different times claimed by clocks in town, you might sense the differing experiences out of which a God Who doesn’t roll dice emerges versus a situation in which an implausible Gambler serves as a suitable prop until the Heavy Bear’s small mind can see things more clearly.

In the first half of The Theory of Everything, Director James Marsh wonderfully shoots scenes–students strolling quads, dappling Spring light, breezes rippling on the river–with just enough frequency and lingering to make you as well look at the world with at least a sense of the physicist. What is this place? How does it work? How is it that can I stand here and instantly in my mind’s eye scale up from such local scenes and activity to a far distant Grand Realm Out There, an immense Cosmos I cannot but intuit in some vast and shadowy way?   In short: Hawking’s normal life at university remains present but almost subliminal to this cosmological odyssey of his. Early in The Theory of Everything, the camera is the eye of a scientist, a cosmologist. Hawking’s transcendent mind penetrates his surroundings with a powerful talent for elegance. And his odyssey, and that of modern cosmology, is enormous: from wondering about “boundary conditions” associated with the cosmos and from there to a theory of a Beginning fashioned not by a wordless Breath upon the deep but on ideas of Black Holes and then (!) to a cosmos “without boundaries.” A sort of tremendous maturation. I would argue that this journey is thoroughly human and its stunning present chapter one of the distinguishing characteristics of the modern outlook. And I would argue that Hawking’s The Grand Design (reviewed elsewhere in this blog) is more important than his A Brief History of Time.

The second half of The Theory of Everything is a touching, bittersweet love story. It’s fine. There is no good reason to descry it. It fits in with the fascination these days with victims of bad health. It is something like the story of Job without the Deistic rationale, which, when you think about it, becomes most understandable given the spirit of modern cosmology.

Eddie Redmayne is wonderful as Hawking. The same must be said of Felicity Jones as Jane Wilde Hawking.

In sum: the first part is superbly poetic. The second part is entertaining in a familiar way.

I’d definitely see the movie for the first part.