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'Theory Of Everything' Is A Noble Affair, Devoid Of Grit

Courtesy Focus Features
Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne as Jane and Stephen Hawking in 'The Theory Of Everything.'

Well into James Marsh's The Theory of Everything, a terribly frustrated Jane Hawking gets a visit from her mother, who tells her that she ought to join the church choir. Jane, in the middle of what might be a serious breakdown, looks at her clueless mother and says, "That's the most British thing I've ever heard."

In the same vein of a negative stereotype, the whole movie is terribly British, meaning that it's decorous, polite, and dull.

The Theory of Everything tells a story of the famous British cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane. Hawking, of course, is a victim of Lou Gehrig's disease, but for many years he has not only stayed alive – against all predictions – he's managed to be one of the leading physicists on our planet. He's noted in particular for his understandings of black holes and of time. Not that you'll get much physics in the movie, it concentrates on Stephen and Jane falling in love and their marriage after he was diagnosed with his terrifying illness. But you don't get much marriage either.

Over the years, Stephen Hawking, played wonderfully here by Eddie Redmayne, has been essentially sainted – for his brilliance, and also for his stunning persistence and courage. The movie joins the chorus on Hawking's sainthood and sanitizes all the other characters as well, who come off as utterly noble. No one gets angry; no one betrays anyone. Even when Hawking leaves his wife to live with his nurse, things between the Hawkings stay polite and refined.

I have no special knowledge of the Hawking marriage and I have not read Jane Hawking's book, on which the movie is based, but I'd lay dollars to doughnuts that Jane Hawking's moment of upset was more than a blip of frustration because the kids were making a fuss while she was she was trying to vacuum the house. I'd also bet that when Hawking announced – through his computerized voice – that he was going to America with the nurse, there was more than the cool slightly regretful tone that the movie offers at this moment.

There's no grit to this movie, no sense of the emotional complexity between two people in the situations that confront the Hawkings. The movie is especially disappointing because director James Marsh has made two observant, gutsy and unnerving documentaries – the 2008 Man on Wire, about French tightrope walker Philip Petit who crossed between the two towers of New York's World Trade Center in 1974 and the 1999 Wisconsin Death Trip, about horror and madness in a county in Wisconsin during the financial panic of the 1890s.

In The Theory of Everything, Marsh's critical intelligence seems absent. It's a movie of ingratiating sweetness that might as well be the story of a slightly bad day in the lives of two nice and unexceptional people.

A good rule of thumb for filmmakers might be that no one should ever try to make a dramatic film on a subject Errol Morris has already filmed in non-fiction.

In 1991, Morris made A Brief History of Time. It's not only about Hawking's life; it gets right into his work, shows that the two cannot be separated, and does everything The Theory of Everything gets nowhere near. Morris gives you the literally awesome feeling that an overwhelming contemplation of the universe is taking place right inside that small head of Stephen Hawking's, which hardly moves and wears those heavy-framed eyeglasses that make him look like Buddy Holly. All that in that one human head, and as happens so often in the films of Errol Morris, the one human head and the cosmos become connected; they're part of each other. And yet one more element to boggle the mind is that this universe produced that head and by doing that, our universe has found a way to contemplate itself.

The Theory of Everything is not in the same ballpark. It's just some bland, pretty pictures.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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