Stephen Hawking, the great theoretical physicist, has contributed mightily to our understanding of the universe. Through his academic work on black holes, the Big Bang Theory and the history of time, and his bestselling books on the subjects, his name has become shorthand for scientific progress and the power of the human mind. Surely, he belongs on the public imagination’s shortlist of notable scientists with Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. That he’s done all this from the confines of a wheelchair, a form of ALS having left him able to write and speak only with the assistance of a custom computer that digitizes his thoughts one click at a time, is nothing short of extraordinary. His theories are important, his life impressive.
But when it comes to making a movie out of his life, director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have made his story into the same fawning biopic we’d see about any Great Man. It shows his early promise in brisk, energetic moments, falls into his tragic setbacks, then watches in sentimental pride his eventual standing-ovation worthy triumphs. All the while, his supportive wife is by his side, even though understandable difficulties cause their marriage to drift apart. The Theory of Everything is any and every biopic, sturdy and uncomplicated, even in its subjects’ darkest moments. It’s not interested in pushing too hard. It’s all about playing it safe and glossy, comfortable.
The film’s a straightforward retelling of Hawking’s life and work, complete with recreations of several key anecdotes that’ll be recognizable to anyone familiar with A Brief History of Time, either his book or Errol Morris’ documentary based on it. Our story begins in the 1960s, when Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) was a smart student hard at work on his PhD at Cambridge. He was on the rowing team, rode his bike across campus, and generally had a good time while impressing everyone with his intimidating intellect. What startled his peers most was how easily his work came to him. At an off-campus party he meets Jane (Felicity Jones), who will become the most important person in his life. They’re a fine pair, he, a man of science and math, and she, a woman of art and religion.
Marsh and McCarten draw out these opposites as Redmayne and Jones fill in the charm that brought the couple together. The film makes the most out of this central relationship, making it far more about the Hawkings’ relationship than about his work. We’re left knowing only that he’s brilliant and popular, but with a more in-depth understanding of the compassion he was shown that enabled him to continue his work. He’s diagnosed with ALS before he’s finished with his Doctorate, before he and Jane get married. It’s a slow decline, losing feeling and muscle in all his limbs bit by bit. First he’s limping, then leaning on canes. Eventually, he can only move his lips and eyes, barely making a sound but for the computer that arrives in his life when his thoughts threaten to remain trapped in his mind.
It is through the vibrant young man’s slow arrival as the Hawking we’ve long known that Redmayne’s acting shines. If a biopic is going to get just one variable exactly right, it might as well be the lead performance. Here, the charming redhead you might remember from Les Miserables delivers an uncanny inhabitation, somewhere beyond imitation, of an intelligent man wrestling with the pain and fear of losing physical abilities. By the time he sits in the wheelchair, crumpled and limp, he does more with his curled upper lip and bright eyes than some actors manage with their whole bodies. He’s everything the movie should be, precise in his charting of the disease’s progression, moving in the resilience of Hawking’s intellect in the face of a diagnosis that even a decade earlier would’ve left him forever locked in.
Marsh, whose other biopic (of sorts) Man on Wire played around with form as much as Theory of Everything plays it safe, populates the film with some of the finest character actors in England, from David Thewlis and Emily Watson to Charlie Cox and Simon McBurney. There’s period flavor in every corner with convincing production design. Bruno Delhomme’s cinematography is handsome and gauzy. The problem is that it’s all in service of a film so rote, going through the biopic motions instead of digging into what makes Hawking’s life so compelling. There’s little care taken to flesh out his theories or personality beyond surface level anecdotal evidence. And then it expects us to cry on command with one of its treacly music cues or misty-eyed crane shots. Instead of matching the level of technical command and unsentimental pathos of Redmayne’s performance, it’s loaded up with the dullest gloss. It’s well made, but conventional and, acting aside, feels awfully hollow.