Hopefully I have gotten all of the dull, “meaningful” prestige films out of the way this weekend. First the overly-depressing-Alzheimer’s-narrative Still Alice, then the woman-finds-herself-in-nature-memoir Wild. The only appropriate way to complete the weekend is with the disease-affected love story found in The Theory of Everything – another adaptation, this time of Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Wilde Hawking.
The Theory of Everything is more a relationship drama than anything else, so the movie begins with the meeting of young Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) while attending Cambridge in the 60’s. It is a fairytale romance that cannot be stalled by opposing interests or religious views. But when Stephen shows signs of the worst case of butterfingers that you have ever seen, it becomes clear that the the real impediment for these two will be Hawking’s life-altering ALS diagnosis. Stephen is given two years to live, but he and Jane extend that time, forming a family, becoming doctors, and building a life together. As Stephen’s condition worsens, however, Jane finds herself at a loss for how to care for her husband, her family, and herself, and the inevitable cracks begin to widen.
Redmayne is really quite good. Like many of the movies being released these days, The Theory of Everything is designed as an award delivery device for its lead actor. Redmayne has the benefit of playing not only a genius, but one with a debilitating disease. One would be enough, but both? It is surprising that Redmayne doesn’t deliver his acceptance speech during the end credits. The young actor will be a safe bet come Oscar-time, as he fully commits to every phase of Hawking’s physical deterioration, while managing to mine emotion from even the scientist’s most static state.
Unfortunately screenwriter Andrew McCarten and director James Marsh are not up to the same task. As Stephen’s ability to vocalize his thoughts dwindles, the filmmakers push him further to the edge of the film, focusing more and more on Jane, who up to this point has only really existed as “Stephen’s companion.” Jane forms a bond with Jonathan (Charlie Cox), a man who joins the family as a caretaker for Stephen, and is made to feel guilty and punished for it, while Stephen’s own well-known affair casts the other woman (Maxine Peake) as the villain, allowing the physicist to remain a lovable scamp. It is really a thankless female lead, but Jones makes the most of the role, whenever it doesn’t call merely for a quivering lower lip and wet eyes.
It would be easy to take some of the pressure off of the character of Jane by perhaps showing Stephen at work, but the filmmakers seem unable to do this effectively. Hawking practically redefined cosmology, but footage of his legacy is kept to a few shots of a blackboard here and a lecture hall there. Maybe it’s just too hard to explain what Hawking theorized, but it doesn’t seem like McCarten and Marsh tried too hard.
In the end, the way The Theory of Everything suffers is the inverse of the similarly-themed The Imitation Game; the Turing biopic focuses too much on the work and not enough on the man who accomplished it, while The Theory of Everything seems solely interested in the relationship, with no context. Fellow scientists played by the likes of David Thewlis and Harry Lloyd are present only to initiate sentimental standing ovations (twice!) rather than illuminate why Hawking is such a fascinating figure. The Theory of Everything may win some awards, but it won’t provide the answer its title seeks; it can barely explain itself.