“The Theory of Everything is one of those movies that earns a recommendation largely on the shoulders of its lead performance.”
by Ken B.
The Theory of Everything is one of those movies that earns a recommendation largely on the shoulders of its lead performance. If you take the excellence, transformation, and seamless transition of Eddie Redmayne’s role as Stephen Hawking out of the equation, you see what remains of James Marsh’s movie – a thoroughly standard biopic where all the notes are hit in just about the same order they always are, and every character is uniformly clean. It’s an ironic turn of fate when compared to the film’s subject – Hawking’s work in general relativity is legendary enough, but the fact that this was accomplished all whilst suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease (also known as ALS, also known as the thing everyone dumped ice water on their head over the summer for) adds even more. This movie, however is far more normal than genius.
The Theory of Everything opens at Cambridge, in 1963, at the initial meeting of Hawking and Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), then two students at the university. Hawking studies cosmology, Wilde is seeking a degree in Iberian literature. He is irreligious, she is a devout Anglican. Opposites attract, as the saying goes. Stephen is working on a theory that traces the history of the universe from its constant expansion back to one singular point, thus signifying a point where time had a beginning. However, his life is derailed when he is diagnosed with a motor neuron condition, a disorder that will slowly claim control of his muscular movements; the ability to move on his own, speak, eat, swallow, etc. He is given two years to live. Stephen, dismayed by this destructive turn of events, is given a will to go on by Jane, who becomes a strongly supportive figure in his life. They soon marry and start a family, and the narrative follows them over the following decades, the successes of Stephen’s career, but the ensuing complications of his condition and the instability of their marriage.
It’s hard to deny outright the feeling of this production’s heightened sense of awards-baiting. It is superbly acted, handsomely shot by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, and beautifully scored by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, but it can come off as frustratingly conventional, and at times over-sanitized, too. Hawking’s ringing approval of the final 123 minute cut isn’t very shocking – every last person in this movie, from himself, to Jane, to Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), the man who would become Jane’s second husband after she and Stephen would divorce in 1995, is depicted as an unimpeachable near-saint. These are not judgments on the people depicted, but a statement on the ensuing effect of the movie’s adaptation, which is, at its worst, milquetoast in its execution.
The big save is, as I mentioned, the talents of the cast. I’ve said it already, but Redmayne’s performance deserves as much discussion as it can get. Spending a good chunk of the movie in a wheelchair, emoting entirely without spoken dialogue towards the end (in fact, when it comes time to introduce Hawking’s now-famous computerized voice emulator, it comes from the actual device itself – Hawking was sent a copy of the script and had the necessary lines recorded for use in the film), there are times where the actor all but disappears into the man he portrays. As for Felicity Jones as Jane Wilde Hawking, the film is often as much about her character as it is her co-star’s, and her acting is strong, understated, and professional. And in playing Jonathan Jones, Charlie Cox provides vital support to the story’s later developments, and his work in the film cannot be underestimated.
Helmed by a man who directed the excellent and original documentary Man on Wire, combined with a real-life story that is simply remarkable, and actors who give a full-fledged effort that pays off in droves, it’s a shame that The Theory of Everything is stuck with a screenplay so afraid to go outside of the box (with the exception of a sudden fantasy scene towards the film’s finale, of which I appreciate the attempt to insert it, but the sequence itself is laughably hokey). The underseen and underappreciated Get on Up, from earlier this year, showed how the biopic, a genre done to death, still has life and room for innovation in it, so there is a part of me that is deeply disappointed with the way this movie turned out. But the rest of me was too floored by the sheer qualities of what does work to let it overly muddle my opinion. The remarkable thing is how an uninspired script doesn’t defer the pure power of the prize-worthy acting within, the direction, and the great production design. These things are so fine tuned that they live on by themselves, and still are capable of making The Theory of Everything worth seeing.