The Theory of Everything has a suitably grandiose name and an interesting subject to match, famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. It is an absolutely gorgeous film, beautifully shot with a score that further accentuates the visual aesthetics. It even has a legitimately great performance, Eddie Redmayne's star-making turn as Hawking.
And yet like so many other biopics it can not escape the painfully dull cliches so often found in this storytelling format to take it anywhere special or noteworthy. If those circumstances are not an indictment of the biopic conceit as a whole, well then I am not sure what such an indictment would look like.
The film picks up in 1963 as Hawking pursues his doctorate in cosmology and theoretical physics at Cambridge. His brilliance is emerging, but so too is his ALS -- the debilitating, often fatal neurological disorder that eventually forces him in to a wheelchair and robs him of the ability to speak. In order, these are the two most interesting things about Hawking -- the contrast between his failing body and his soaring mind. His blossoming romance with Jane, played by Felicity Jones, also a graduate student at Cambridge, becomes the third focal point of this version of his life story. In fact, it often outshines the other two, which I suppose makes sense since the story is based on a memoir by Jane, his eventual wife.
Director James Marsh (Man on Wire) and screenwriter Anthony McCarten get the calculus all wrong as they try to juggle these three elements. Hawking's momentous scientific discoveries are mostly glossed over with an admiring roll of the eyes from Jones, and as the story progresses -- and those discoveries earn him more and more fame -- they are increasingly diminished by his physical decline and Jane's growing discontent with their marriage as she plays doting wife in the spotlight, mother to three children, and, too often, caretaker and nurse to her husband.
Much is made of the sacrifices Jane made over the years for her husband — and those are certainly worthy of admiration and appreciation — but Marsh and McCarten seem to regularly lose track of what those sacrifices made possible, reducing Jones to a scowling, angsty nag and Redmayne to a charming, humorous and emotionally distant and unappreciative genius. Too often it feels like Redmayne is off doing generic genius-y things — never mind what or how significant those things are — and, I guess in the name of a balanced accounting of the marriage, you are reminded that “see, Jane was doing important stuff too.” It’s a pedantic message — one about which I had no preconceived notions other than, yeah, it sure must have been difficult to care for Stephen Hawking — wrapped in a familiar, dreary plot.
Stephen is brilliant. Things are tough at home. His physical condition gets worse. Redmayne cracks an ethereal joke, followed by a knowing grin. Move the story ahead a few years, update everyone’s wardrobe, and repeat.
Marsh and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme do manage to get the visuals perfectly right. Every shot is suffused with a dappled, fuzzy glow. That kind of radiance seems to fit the life story of a cosmologist somehow. The beginning of the film is also particularly adept at foreshadowing the physical limitations that will come to define Hawking. The tight, intimate framing of so many scenes and the slight stumbles and struggles as he whirls Jane around or tries to pick up a pen have a way of trapping you in that failing body right alongside Stephen.
It is unfortunate that the rest of the story feels so constrained as well. Stephen and Jane Hawking’s failing marriage — their struggle to lead a normal life when so much about them (about him, really) is not normal — might make for an interesting tale, but not as it is told by Marsh and McCarten. This is a mindless, average film on auto-pilot that just so happens to be about a singular scientific mind. The latter, sadly, can not obscure the former.