Starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones
My rating: ★★1/2 stars
Ordinary biopic of extraordinary man.
The Theory of Everything tells the story of Stephen Hawking’s fight with motor neurone disease (known as ALS in the U.S.), focusing on how it affected his relationship with his wife Jane (Felicity Jones). This focus is unsurprising given that the film was adapted from Jane Hawking’s book about her life with Stephen (Eddie Redmayne).
What was surprising is how unadventurous the film was, given the accolades that it has received. The film covers all the standard biopic events, as if they were on a checklist. Protagonist starts out with a promising career. Check. The protagonist encounters major adversity, often in the form of a disease. Check. Check. The protagonist perseveres, refusing to be sidelined by adversity. Check. The protagonist’s home life becomes strained by focus on career and difficulties posed by adversity. Check. Check. The protagonist achieves extraordinary success, making the struggle and strife worth it in the end. Check. Check.
We’ve seen this movie before. We’ve seen it so often because it works. It’s the kind of heart-warming, feel-good story that audiences can applaud. However, in lieu of novelty, retellings of this story must represent the pinnacle of artistic achievement to overcome the sense of cliché. The Theory of Everything tries very hard to do that. Director James Marsh tries too hard. He overdirects the film. As if seeking to make The Theory of Everything seem like more than just a disease-of-the-week TV movie from the 1980s, he uses every cinematic technique in his toolbox—tricks with lighting and lenses, subjective sound, a swelling score so prominent that it seems to be attempting to bludgeon the audience into submission. In the end, I was overwhelmed by the director’s attempts to prove that movie is not ordinary.
But the movie is ordinary even though Stephen Hawking is not. The movie’s emphasis on his home life, however, barely gives us a chance to see what makes Hawking extraordinary. Certainly, the kind of theoretical science Hawking practices isn’t cinematic. Not only is it not visual, it’s beyond the ability of most of the audience to comprehend, so science is largely left out of the movie, with only a couple of scenes, early in the film, hinting at the impact of Hawking’s work.
Mostly, the movie is a conventional domestic drama, the success of which depends on the performances. Eddie Redmayne solidly captures the image that we have of Hawking. However, so much of the performance is playing the disability that it didn’t seem to me that Redmayne created much of a character beyond the disability. Felicity Jones avoids the histrionics that often characterize the long-suffering wife roles. The performance, however, is curiously flat and lacking an air of knowingness. I may have expected too much given the accolades these performances have garnered. Surprisingly, I thought the best performance moment came from supporting player Harry Lloyd, who had a great scene playing Hawking’s roommate when Hawking tells him of his diagnosis.
In all, the movie was underwhelming. None of the choices the filmmakers made elevated the film beyond the ordinary. The Theory of Everything is not a bad movie. It’s just a sadly run-of-the-mill one.