Cinema loves its biopics about famous scientists almost as much as it loves ones about famous musicians, especially if the science they deal with is far too complex for the average person to understand. So it was only a matter of time before someone turned to the life and work of Stephen Hawking, the acclaimed theoretical physicist whose work has helped us understand the origins of the universe, but who has also spent much of his life confined to a wheelchair unable to move or speak thanks to his crippling motor neurone disease. This makes him an intriguing character to explore, and director James Marsh has taken it on with ‘The Theory of Everything’, which has been one of the films to beat this awards season. But is what sounds good in theory as effective in actuality?
The film is a chronicle of Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his relationship and marriage to Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), which began during their time as students at Cambridge University in 1963. As their love begins to blossom, Stephen begins to show the early signs of the disease that will possibly claim his life within two years, but Jane refuses to give up on him. With her support and the encouragement of his supervisor Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis), Stephen continues to pursue his theories as his body collapses around him, and Jane has to watch as her husband slowly disappears before her eyes.
This all suggests the hallmarks of a great film, so it’s initially confusing that ‘The Theory of Everything’ is as unsatisfying and slight a film as it is. From a technical standpoint, everything is pretty serviceable. James Marsh (who won an Oscar for his astounding documentary ‘Man on Wire’ in 2008) does an unremarkable job with the film - not a bad one, but not a memorable one either. The film trundles along at a wandering pace, never properly picking up towards any sort of climax, narrative or emotional. The cinematography from Benoit Delhomme is lovely, and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is terrific, but again nothing from behind the camera makes the film stand out at all. Where the film really falls down is its screenplay by Anthony McCarten. It is entirely serviceable to the point of being dull, halfway through realising that Hawking and his life might not actually be enough to fill a feature film. Once the disease has properly taken hold, the narrative completely unravels, and even though it tries to quickly refocus to Jane, it’s almost too late to suddenly change the protagonist. There just isn’t enough going on in this story to keep you entertained or engaged, proving that the equation of great mind plus disabilitydoes not always equal narrative success. Hope arrives with Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), a young man who befriends the Hawkings and eventually begins an affair with Jane, but even this is terribly mishandled.
Possibly the most bizarre aspect of the film though is that it almost totally omits one of the major characters in the story - science itself. We’re told constantly how important Stephen’s work is, and people stand to applaud the man at the end, but we the audience is never offered an explanation for exactly what it is he has done. Sure, his work is dealing with some of the most complex concepts of creation and cosmology, but by not allowing us into that world, we feel left out and a bit dumb. Films like ‘A Beautiful Mind’ (2001) took an extra step to use the visual language of cinema to explain the science of their subject, but ‘The Theory of Everything’ seems to dodge that at every turn, practically skipping over a vitally necessary piece of the puzzle, why this man is important enough to make a film about. Perhaps it would have been far stronger if it had outright been about Jane and her gargantuan struggle than a half-baked balance of both.
Thankfully, the work in front of the camera is far more intelligent and impressive. In fact, it’s probably the only reason to see the film. Both Redmayne and Jones are utterly extraordinary as Stephen and Jane. Redmayne pulls off some sort of minor miracle as Stephen, charting his physical demise without ever allowing it to dominate his performance. The sparkle and pain is always behind his eyes, and the total commitment of this young man to his subject and his craft is breathtaking. As Redmayne becomes confined, Jones steps in and totally carries the film, demonstrating a power and a grace that instantly puts her up there with the best actors of her generation. Jane is never weak, a powerful young woman being bruised and battered by circumstance impossible to comprehend. More importantly, together they lift and support each others’ performances, the chemistry between them thrilling and heartbreaking. They also have a uniformly supporting cast, especially Charlie Cox and David Thewlis.
It’s initially confusing that ‘The Theory of Everything’ is as unsatisfying and slight a film as it is.
As astounding as its central performances are, ‘The Theory of Everything’ never fulfils the promise of its premise or its much more powerful trailer. This is a by-the-numbers biopic, ticking emotional cues without earning them and struggling to find the sweeping romance in a subject that might not be the sweeping romance it was looking for. I spent the last half hour waiting for a kick that never came, a justification for why I should hear this story outside of the "overcoming adversity" slogan we get with all these films. Surely when dealing with the man who helped shape our concept of where we came from and the woman who held his life together enough for him to do it, you could come up with something more inspiring and affecting. As it is, ‘The Theory of Everything’ doesn’t really offer much at all.