A mostly well rounded biopic that looks at the relationship between renowned scientific mastermind Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane Wilde, The Theory of Everything marks the second fictional film in a row for documentarian James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim). It makes for a surprisingly great fit since the tone of the film is akin to more of a love story and inspirational tale of struggling with physical and psychological adversity, and Marsh proves to be the perfect craftsman to make sure that the film stays on point and never descends into treacly melodrama. Well, for the most part… and it is a melodrama… but it’s still a fine example of the genre until the incredibly problematic final twenty minutes.
Eddie Redmayne transforms himself completely for every stage of Hawking’s life, starting from the cosmologist’s days as an able bodies, underachieving nerd at Cambridge in 1963, through his gradual loss of mobility due to ALS. While at Cambridge in happier times, he meets Felicity Jones’ Jane, a vaguely religious and kindly arts major. They begin a very grounded sort of romantic relationship. They have a chemistry that suggests two people who act like they’re the only people in the universe. The love feels real and earned. Once Stephen starts gradually deteriorating, that love never vanishes. If anything, it strengthens and hardens under pressure
Redmayne is outstanding, giving a performance of remarkable physicality without seeming like a caricature of a known figure in a stab at award season gold. It’s not hard to tell when some actors are trying too hard to make an impression, but his depiction of Hawking is remarkable in its humanity. He could have played Hawking as an icon, or at certain points as a brilliant man giving up on life, but he remembers one key thing that made Hawking important in the first place. Hawking was a pragmatist and a realist. He dared to dream, and while it kills him to see that he’ll never be able to physically hold and comfort his children or be there in every way he wants to be there for Jane, it’s easy to see Hawking’s wheels turning via Redmayne’s performance. There’s pain, and yet, a thought process that Hawking goes through. He gets dark, but he’s in touch with that darkness.
But as great as Redmayne is, he’s almost nothing without Jones as his counterpart. Jones conveys equal amounts of deep love and frustration in a balanced and nuanced fashion. Throughout her career, Jones has shown a remarkable amount of perception to convey love on screen, and her work with Redmayne and Marsh might be the best example of this yet. In many respects, her performance is just as physically and psychologically transformative as Redmayne’s. is just as great and transformative It’s a hard situation for both of them, and they approach it all from a place of love and respect even when they’re angry with each other.
Marsh also creates a gorgeous and subtle world. Utilizing gorgeous cinematography from Benoît Delhomme (1408, A Most Wanted Man) that predominantly utilizes tones of blue, green, and gray. There are gorgeous moments, but only in situations where it makes sense for things to look opulent. He never dwells for too long on any moments that casually dance on the line between being realistic and being dramatically manipulative. Similarly, Anthony McCarten’s screenplay does a respectable job of depicting disability, and it feels tonally in step with the efforts of Marsh and the cast. That’s probably because of Jane and Stephen’s direct input and help with the production, but that could only help rather than hurt.
But there’s a huge problem: The Theory of Everything ultimately overstays its welcome and races to make up for its lack of clichés for its first 100 minutes by shooting itself in the foot for the final act. I’m not entirely sure if it’s a spoiler to say what happens since one could easily Google where Jane and Stephen’s relationship heads, but it’s definitely not a spoiler to say that it’s taking a convoy of truckloads of liberties to reach a happy ending out of some not-so-happy feelings. Suddenly, something happens between the couple, and instead of knowing how to approach the subject the film finds ludicrous ways of rationalising how wrongheaded it all feels.
Even worse, it suddenly starts adding elements of wish fulfilment and flat out fantastical, teary eyed speechifying that was absent from the rest of the film. It feels every bit the work of a studio executive who thought this was the way to win the hearts of awards voters. You don’t need it, guys. Stephen Hawking has been important, controversial, and brilliant enough on his own without belabouring the point with a swelling musical score.
Overall thanks to Redmayne, Jones, and Marsh’s restraint from tugging at the heartstrings too much, it works. You just might want to leave the room and let Stephen and Jane work their problems out on their own. You don’t want to be around to see where it ends up.