The Theory of Everything must be a great movie, because Stephen Hawking has led a great life. Right? I mean, there couldn’t possibly be any flaw to that logic, could there?
And sure enough, Professor Stephen Hawking has led one of the more remarkable lives of the 20th Century, changing the way the world viewed science and surviving a motor neuron disease that confines him to a chair, and which has led to the loss of his voice, forcing him to speak with a now iconic monotone via a speech-generating device. He has weathered his hardships with humor and thoughtfulness and an inspirational determination that should, by all rights, be the source of a truly remarkable motion picture.
But although James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything is always classy, has been beautifully shot and boasts a fantastic performance from Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, it fails to capture the inherent drama of its subject’s life. Instead it mostly focuses on how frustrating it was, as if that’s the part that audiences weren’t likely to understand.
Based on the memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking by Jane Hawking, who was married to Stephen Hawking for 30 years, The Theory of Everything begins with the promising young cosmologist meeting and romancing a young Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) in college, shortly before being diagnosed with motor neuron disease and given only a few years to live.
Hawking and Wilde marry anyway, have children, and support each other throughout Hawking’s increasingly acclaimed career, even as his wife finds her life revolving entirely around the needs of her husband and not, to her increasing distress, around her own personal passions. As Hawking’s condition deteriorates, they take on an assistant, Brian (Charlie Cox), to whom Jane is increasingly attracted.
It would be easy to point out that at this juncture, The Theory of Everything gets mired in an unremarkable will-they-or-won’t-they forbidden love that distracts from the more intriguing drama at hand. But the real problem is that even before The Theory of Everything starts to feel like a tame romance novel, Marsh’s film fails to convey anything but the strain on the Hawkings’ relationship.
Hawking’s theories are articulated but only contextualized when his snooty peers bluster about them. We only seem to know that he changed the world of science because grumpy British scientists get grumpy about it, and not because The Theory of Everything places his life’s work in a meaningful context. We are told he is famous but we never see how that impacts his life. His work always comes second to his marriage, making The Theory of Everything feel narrow and simplistic.
And even that would be just fine if The Theory of Everything portrayed this marriage as an involving drama all its own, but it resorts to Nicholas Sparks territory when it isn’t wallowing in Jane Hawking’s quiet desperation. Felicity Jones is an impressive actress but too much of her role in The Theory of Everything forces her to wear an upper lip of stiffness, and too many of her emotional moments play out the same way: guilt and resolve and testiness, guilt and resolve and testiness.
The obvious excuse is that The Theory of Everything is based on a true story, that it chooses to focus on an interpersonal relationship as a touchstone for audience sympathy, and that who are we to judge whether a real person’s life was dramatic enough? But the life of the Hawkings was clearly rife with drama, only to be conveyed with a steady hum instead of an engaging percussion by a film that places too much emphasis on moving apace and not enough on milking its source material for involving incident.
The Theory of Everything ultimately makes a rather obvious statement about an incredibly complicated subject: that Professor Stephen Hawking would have preferred not to have been confined to a wheelchair. It’s a sentiment expressed with mawkish fantasy in the film’s weakest moment, a desperate climactic ploy for tears that falls flatter than the universe.
But James Marsh’s film is, if nothing else, a showcase for Eddie Redmayne, an actor who delicately captures the complex physicality of Stephen Hawking and effectively conveys his inner turmoil with a steadily diminishing set of tools. Felicity Jones emerges safely from a script that keeps her at one note for too much of the running time, and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme transforms their world into an incredible expression of light.
The Theory of Everything has a flimsy design, but that design has been turned into a reality with impressive craftsmanship. The story doesn’t work and yet it doesn’t fall apart because of all the effort that went into propping it up. And since the subject of that story is so inherently powerful, and since the filmmakers tried so very hard to convey it, some people may end up loving The Theory of Everything. To paraphrase a certain other famous physicist: everything is relative.