The Theory of Everything (2014)


What Place for the Humanities in a Theory of Everything?

— Incapacitated by Lou Gehrig’s disease, Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) in James Marsh’s film, The Theory of Everything (2014) is confined to a wheelchair that his wife, Jane (Felicity Jones) must operate with great difficulty. Crushed by the responsibility, Jane has sought out the companionship of a kind choir director at her church. Now a famous physicist, Stephen gets invited to attend a performance of Richard Wagner’s opera, Siegfried in Bordeaux, France. Stephen encourages Jane to take their kids camping while he jots across the channel to attend the opera.

Marsh crosscuts the two scenes for full melodramatic effect. Late at night, at the campground, Jane finally gives in to her desires, entering the musician’s tent to experience a rare moment of intimacy. Meanwhile, in France, while Stephen attends the performance, he begins spitting up blood. The paramedics rush him to the hospital, where he is given an emergency tracheotomy, dooming him to never be able to speak again.

Critic David Edelstein finds this moralizing inexcusable: “The film’s nadir comes when Jane crawls into a tent on a camping trip… Are we meant to think her far-away infidelity caused his near-death? That’s some space-time continuum.” But, the melodramatics of this scene can be read differently. Wagner theorized the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, a synesthetic combination of music and stagecraft, as the best way to encapsulate the full complexity of the human experience.

The crosscut scenes in The Theory of Everything lead to a greater balance in both the lives of Jane and Stephen. After divorcing Hawking, Jane accomplishes what she could not while taking care of him: she finishes her Ph.D. in medieval Iberian poetry. Earlier in the film, she observed to Hawking that the studying of the past using humanities methods is also a form of time travel, the subject of his mathematical inquiry.

The Theory of Everything embraces the total work of art: the Wagnerian synthesis extends from the opera’s combination of music and image to 20th century physics. When Hawking quests after “the one single unifying equation that explains everything in the universe,” he himself sees that Richard Wagner is his fellow traveler, not in the realm of mathematical equations, but via a different mode of expression, synesthetic musical theater, an all-encompassing artwork.

Marsh’s film adds a third component to a theory of everything, the cinema, the direct 20th century heir of Wagner’s total work of art, and also itself a time machine. In the final minute of The Theory of Everything, Marsh projects short film clips re-telling the entire story in reverse. The film ends with a freeze frame on Stephen’s face as a young man. Like Hawking’s interest in time as a concept of theoretical physics, and Jane’s present-day interest in medieval poetry, Marsh highlights the cinema as a time machine, capable of re-telling the love story of Stephen and Jane, witnessing its collapse, but then rewinding to the moment when they first met.

The Theory of Everything comes full circle to demonstrate that many disciplinary perspectives are needed for human beings to attain their full potential. Stephen’s quest for elegance in mathematics does not trump Jane’s quest at self-understanding, explored via Iberian poetry. In fact, this is Jane’s film: Marsh operates the time machine of cinema to conclude with her transformed point-of-view of Stephen, capable of writing a book exploring her doomed relationship to him, but much better able to appreciate the full emotional impact of that first moment when she laid eyes on one of the great geniuses of contemporary science.

We find film emotionally moving because, even though we do not know these people as anything other than shadows on a wall, we come to see the world through their eyes, many years of their experiences condensed into a few hours. I cannot think of anything more Wagnerian. The composer’s belief that the Gesamtkunstwerk would release a superior understanding of humanity is fully borne out by the cinema of 2014. The circular motif of The Theory of Everything is a wonderful crescendo to the legacy of Wagner, whose most famous work was obsessed, with of all things, a ring.

– Walter Metz