Upon leaving the theater after watching James Marsh’s Oscar baitiest of biopics The Theory of Everything, it struck me that biopics attempt to accomplish their goals in no small part with the music used. For example, what I would call inspirational biopics take ordinary scenes, inject an anthemic, uplifting tune, and have viewers wanting to run around on a beach in short shorts and no shoes a la Chariots of Fire.
Like their soundtracks, the aim of such movies is admittedly not lofty; there is very little to chew on. The inspirational biopic can be contrasted with something like The Queen. Where The Queen encourages the viewer to understand a certain element of the human condition, or at least the human being portrayed, films like Chariots of Fire play on a different plane, hoping to awaken the emotions and inspire viewers to be like the person being portrayed. Listen, if you can, to “Eric’s Theme” and “Abraham’s Theme” from The Chariots of Fire soundtrack, and contrast it to “The Queen” from The Queen. The former tells the viewer what to think about the characters, the later merely encourages sympathy, the necessary prerequisite to understanding.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that inspirational biopics as a genre are bad films in any sense. I actually like Chariots of Fire very much. But the distinction is important. The success or failure of the inspirational biopic lies simply in its ability to make the true, good, and beautiful look true, good, and beautiful, not in whether it gives an adequately nuanced view of the human condition. In as much as the character we are supposed to view as good is good, the inspirational biopic is a success.
For that reason alone, The Theory of Everything is a fairly poor example of the genre.
The film, about the marriage of the physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne, in a performance worthy of the Oscar) and Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) begins in Cambridge in 1963. Hawking, at that time a young, lazy, but brilliant graduate student, meets Jane at a college party. In a short while, the film depicts the two falling in love, culminating in a scene in which they romantically kiss under the glow of party lights on a picturesque bridge.
Hawking, though, in the midst of this budding but serious romance and also the beginnings of extraordinary success in his intellectual efforts, is diagnosed with a motor-neuron disease, commonly known now as Lou Gehrig’s disease in the U.S., or ALS. Given a maximum of two years to live, with the prospect of over that time gradually losing his ability to function, Stephen shuts himself away from everyone, especially Jane.
In one particular scene Jane stubbornly breaks through Stephen’s wall by making him play a game of croquet. Stephen angrily hacks at the croquet balls, the symptoms of his condition already apparent. But Jane stays faithful, convinced that her love for Stephen will get them through the tragedies to come. Throughout the film, her sacrifice, exemplified most fully in this particular scene, is truly amazing. It was a very real sacrifice, regardless of the events that occurred later, including her affair with a local choir director and eventual divorce.
The rest of the film concentrates on their marriage together (which ends in divorce when Stephen falls in love with a caretaker and Jane with the choir director), and Stephen’s physical difficulties, medical breakthroughs, and eventual intellectual triumph.
As mentioned before, the acting is really first rate, especially on the part of Eddie Redmayne. The cinematography is warm and inviting, the music gorgeous and powerfully uplifting, the pacing steady and deliberate. In terms of technique, one couldn’t asked for much more in an inspirational biopic.
What is odd about the film is what it chooses to focus on, what it encourages to viewers to admire in the characters of Stephen and Jane. Their marriage was, by any Christian standard, a wreck. For as much as Hawking knows about science, he knows equally little about the sacrificial nature of love, even going so far as to encourage his wife to have an affair.Those parts of his life which are most worthy of admiration, his fortitude in the face of unimaginable physical disability and his extraordinary intellect, are touched on but little in the film. We get some minor glimpses of the strength of his mind near the beginning, but, for the most part, the audience is supposed to take it on faith that Stephen is a brilliant scientist solving problems that no one else has or can.
I should note here that the difficulties faced by Stephen and Jane are nothing if not understandable. They are certainly more daunting than most of us will have to face in our own lives. But the emotions that the film attempts to elicit through the beauty of its images, acting, and music, especially, are all the wrong ones. The things that, as a viewer, I’m supposed to admire are not admirable. I do not feel admiration for the way Stephen and Jane chose to live their lives, I do not admire their choices to leave each other for others who, perhaps, fulfill and understand them more, I do not admire Stephen for his philosophy of life that he gives in answer to an inquiring fan, “Ever since the dawn of civilization, people have craved for an understanding of the underlying order of the world. There ought to be something very special about the boundary conditions of the universe – and what can be more special than that there is no boundary? And there should be no boundary to human endeavor. We are all different. There is no such thing as a standard or run of the mill human being–but we share the same human spirit. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.” Such a philosophy sounds inviting, especially if said while an anthemic, uplifting piece of music plays in the background. But, as a Christian, I find it extremely lacking. There is no lasting hope in mere human endeavor, and there is no lasting hope in life apart from God, Whom Stephen absolutely repudiates.
In pieces, very much like a human life, there is much to admire in The Theory of Everything. As a whole, it felt more like a beautiful piece of music ending in a dissonant chord, leaving on odd taste in the mouth of its hearers. One couldn’t really call that beautiful. Dissonance has its place, no doubt, but it shouldn’t be confused with harmony.