Just in time for the Oscar season, here we have The Theory of Everything; a very good film, but very depressing. If you don’t know that going in, that’s the one major thing to take away from this brief review.
The story of Stephen Hawking is one of great sadness, but also of technological marvels and the perseverance of the human spirit. Sounds familiar enough, right?
The Theory of Everything is based on the memoirs of Hawking’s ex wife, Jane Wilde, called Travelling to Infinity, My Life with Stephen, and unlike some more one-sided narratives and biographies, it’s very compelling because you can sympathize with the strains and desires of both parties.
The story is told in the film from no one person’s point of view, despite the source material being an autobiography. While watching, you may feel for one character more than you do the other, but that doesn’t make the other objectively bad. And, like a truly smart film, The Theory of Everything demands you make a strong case for labeling one character that way subjectively, if you even try to argue it at all.
*Some Spoilers Below*
In a way, the movie reminds me of the romance subplot from The Wind Rises (2013), the last Miyazaki movie to-date. Despite knowing that they will have little together, Jiro and Naoko get married, and Naoko does her best to support her husband as he works hard designing new aircrafts. In this case, the wife dies, whereas in The Theory of Everything, Stephen, the revolutionary mind, is set to die in two years. Either way, the two couples marry regardless of their circumstances.
The difference, besides Miyazaki’s film probably taking more creative liberties with its source material, is that Naoko dies, while Stephen lives on even today.
If I had to distill The Theory of Everything down to its bare moral, I would that it is this: “Life isn’t fair. The second would be: “Love is hard.” And moral one heavily factors into moral 2, as you would expect. The relationship between Stephen and Jane is tested right from the start, but you never doubt the feelings they have for each other. Just as everyone has a goal or a dream, they have boundaries that they cannot, or should not, cross.
In the film, Jane married the man she loved under the impression that he had two years to live, and despite her insistence that she would help Stephen fight to overcome his condition, it is clear that she wasn’t prepared for a lifetime of taking care of him. Add children into the mix, and things become even more difficult. She had trouble keeping everything together while still finding her own happiness through schooling, a career, and a stronger commitment to her faith.
Even her husband’s work took a toll on her at times. It’s not impossible for a Christian and an Agnostic to live and love and agree to disagree with one another, but it can be a strain depending on strength of convictions. Jane clearly struggled with reconciling her beliefs with those of her husband, the brilliant physicist who became world famous for his theories about time, space, and black holes.
Stephen, meanwhile, initially faced despair when he learned that he was going to die. He worked hard on his theories and appreciated and loved his wife, but he also didn’t want to spend too much money or rely too heavily on the people around him. He caved because Jane was stressed and depressed, and he wanted to make her life easier.
From the start of the film, Stephen is shown to be intelligent and a bit awkward (with a nerdy sort of charm to him), but he doesn’t always share his thoughts aloud, and he is not oblivious to the goings on around him. As the story progresses and he gradually loses his ability to speak, even after he receives the voice synthesizer, we the audience must read his eyes and subtle gestures to figure out what he is saying and thinking. As a result, Stephen doesn’t complain or sulk much, but we feel his pride, loss of pride, sadness, and frustration through these small moments of acting.
Returning to the idea of limits, it’s interesting and kind of amazing to see how much an actor can get across when told he or she has to keep from doing a number of things that come naturally to most people. If you were told to, for example, convey grief and loss without ever opening your mouth, could you do it well?
And even before the motor neuron’s disease really kicks in, you find really powerful emotion as the characters contemplate their situation. The croquet scene was pretty heart-wrenching to watch, on both Jane and Stephen’s behalves.
It’s not easy to judge who should sacrifice and compromise more in this kind of situation, if indeed anyone should. I like this film particularly because it shows that wants and selfishness doesn’t always come from a bad or thoughtless place. As human beings, we all innately have wants and needs and times where we want to put ourselves before others. Need to, as a matter of fact. But that doesn’t make us inherently bad people.
At one point in the film, Jane was clearly contemplating an affair, and despite my feelings toward infidelity, I couldn’t really fault her. Nor could I with Stephen when he became enamored with his young, upbeat, flattering caregiver. Even before Jane and he came to the realization that they couldn’t stay married to one another, I understood and empathized.
As someone who was raised with a disabled sibling, I felt this film speak to me a bit of my own family’s experiences. It was and still is difficult for my parents, taking care of a boy who continues to age, but will never mentally mature. A sweet, funny, well-meaning boy who can barely take care of himself and function in society; my brother struggles to communicate and express emotions, wants, and needs effectively.
Stephen and Jane’s struggles were different, and yet very similar in my mind.
Even the subtle acting of the children, the characters who got the least focus, reminded me of myself at times. They gave simple looks that conveyed the need for attention, the frustration of helping to take care of someone else when you were still figuring things out and trying to take care of yourself. We the audience never see the kids getting laughed at by their classmates or friends because of their father’s condition, but I’m sure that was there as well. Kids can be mean, but sometimes they just don’t know any better.
It’s nobody’s fault, and you don’t love the person any less, but it doesn’t make reality any less difficult and unfair. And saying life is difficult and unfair doesn’t mean that you just accept that and try to move forward instantly.
Without even taking into account the most affected person’s perspective in this case, disability is a major grey area that no one can quite figure out how to cope with or talk about. How much of it do we embrace as part of a person’s sense of self, and how much of it do we attempt to curve, rectify, or “cure”?
The only common things I as a semi-outsider have found that help are to try your best, love the person or people with all your heart, seek support when you need it, and find times and ways in which it’s okay to be selfish. Because it can be.
Contrary to most of the upbeat messages we see about overcoming all of life’s obstacles, The Theory of Everything exposes the not-always-pleasant truth that people do have limits, and that too much sacrifice doesn’t just make someone depressed or bitter. It can thoroughly break them.
At the same time, we can’t know our limits unless we test them, so I guess we can only hope that our friends and loved ones understand, and can be there to support us when we can’t even support ourselves.
Life isn’t fair. Love is hard. But we strive through the former and chase after the latter because they are worth it.
So many films try to convey this idea, but few do it so well, as far as I’ve seen.
So I would recommend this film, if only for its realism and message. I generally like stories without stupid misunderstandings and easy character scapegoating, because while they can happen in real life, I personally find them distracting and variably convincing. I’m not a huge fan of tear-jerkers, but if you’re dead-set on seeing one, this is a good one. A bit long at times, but not much screen time is wasted. Heartbreaking, but not completely without hope or optimism.
The Theory of Everything is a beautiful, brief equation for some pretty complex concepts. Make of them what you will.
*All pictures, video clips, and other media belong to their respective owners. None of the images or sounds belong to me.