Stephen Hawking, the brilliant theoretical physicist betrayed by his own body and confined to a wheelchair is given the biopic treatment in director James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything. Hawking is a master in his field and the success he has achieved in the face of such physical limitations is amazing. There are certainly some worthwhile aspects to the film, but much how Hawking is confined and limited by his body, the film is confined is limited by too many genre tropes and putting it’s subject on a pedestal.
The film is as much a love story about the relationship between Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones) as it is about Hawking’s slow-progressing ALS and his brilliant mind. The film opens with their meeting, progresses through his diagnosis, their eventual marriage, and the struggles to make life as normal as possible as his ALS becomes more and more debilitating.
Overall, the film hews more closely to Walk the Line biopic territory in that it gives almost equal billing to the two leads, Redmayne and Jones. Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking and the progression of his disease nearly perfectly. Jones plays Jane as someone who goes into things with her eyes open, even though she does not fully realize all that it will entail. There is good chemistry between the two and clear affection between the characters. Sadly, too much of the relationship is treated with generic plot beats. The film begins with a meet-cute. Because he is such a man of science, of course the film must play up the contrast of that to her religious beliefs, which led me to let out a short groan when they first introduce that because I knew it was going to be hammered on several more times.
The supporting cast is given little to do outside of Charlie Cox who plays Jonathan, a choir leader who befriends the family, and Stephen’s college roommate Brian (Harry Lloyd). David Thewlis is mostly wasted in his role as Stephen’s professor and eventual peer at Cambridge. Emily Watson bizarrely shows up for one random scene as Jane’s mother for a heart to heart (other than that she may have shown up in the background once before that scene). A lot of the character beats with these characters are clearly earmarked well in advance of when they happen. Despite not really knowing much about Stephen Hawking’s life, knowing films and biopics in general, there was very little that was surprising here. What was surprising is that it is not a storybook ending and the film does not shy away from the struggling marriage between Stephen and Jane.
There are some nice touches o the film. As Stephen gets stuck trying to put on a sweater it leads to a revelation when he sees the fireplace through the fabric. The film does a good job showing that as smart as his mind is and how he capable of understanding and studying things most people would struggle to understand, the ability to do a simple task such as picking up a dropped pen is impossible for him. There is some poignancy to that dichotomy. And the film makes attempts at humanizing rather than strictly deifying him, through showing his sense of humor when he first gets his voice machine and some other light-hearted moments, but that is too few and far between.
Other than the broadest of strokes in relation to science vs. religion, little time is afforded to his study of time and space except for one or two scenes. At one point he is brought to a lab room by his professor where it is revealed that other great luminary minds of science had studied and honed their craft in that room. There is a sense of awe and wonder and reverence in that moment, but it ends up being a throwaway as afterward there are maybe two scenes that take place there the rest of the film.
The problem with a biopic is knowing how to approach the subject and the material. Some go with a lifespan approach, others take a brief moment in time (pun intended) from the person’s life and use that as an exploration of that person (e.g. Selma). The Theory of Everything settled for some sort of middle ground with a story that feels mostly familiar about a remarkable person whose story is anything but familiar. It ends being an unremarkable and easily forgettable viewing experience despite two leads that give worthwhile performances.
Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars