Absorbingly lovely, highly uneven, nimbly acted, and genuinely moving, The Theory of Everything is an unremarkable film about a remarkable man; a handsome production of a whitewashed marriage with two fierce lead performances that take it beyond the slightly hollow to the realm of quite affecting.
While at Cambridge in the 1960s, genius cosmologist and physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne, My Week with Marilyn, Les Misérables) falls in love with literature student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones, Like Crazy, The Invisible Woman), before a earth-shattering diagnosis of motor neuron disease at 21 years of age puts his life, career, and romance in jeopardy.
Jones and Redmayne are both superb as a devoted but imperfect pair of headstrong people trying and failing to treat each other with care and respect. Redmayne’s performance is nearly everything you could ask for: convincing in its physicality, credible in its pain, and charitably optimistic in its constant good temper. He captures Hawking’s innate charm and self-effacing humour, and twinkles and tickles the intellectual friskiness beneath the mathematical wunderkind’s increasingly knotted and crippled body.
While Redmayne’s performance deserves every bit of praise and statuary it will get, Jones has the subtler, less showy role and matches him frame for frame. Palpable and poignant, she radiates a resolve and inner strength. Jones is swooningly terrific, and she and Redmayne have an easy, enchanting chemistry, developing a sonorous dynamic that inhabits qualities of affection and sadness.
Adapted from Jane’s memoir by Anthony McCarten and directed by Academy Award-winning documentarian James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim), The Theory of Everything also features stunning cinematography from Benoit Delhomme. Smartly directed, sophisticated, and striking – even piercing – for the way it infiltrates some universal realities of marriage, Marsh employs a familiar strategy – exploiting adversity more and more vigorously as the plot idles forward, and ending with a standing ovation to his hero – designed to wring maximum waterworks from an emotionally vulnerable audience. Kudos to Marsh and his cast, because it does succeed.
Yet as much as it attempts to play deftly against schmaltz, the boilerplate biopic steps into Hallmark territory on a number of occasions, and succumbs to the stultifying gravity of convention. Meticulous in its adherence to customary narrative inducement, the heartbreaking story shows clear signs of genteel airbrushing and can’t break through the formula and packaging around it. It can’t help but recall earlier disability dramas like My Left Foot and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and it amounts to a sanded-down and embossed vision of Hawking and Wilde’s 30-year marriage (miraculously, Jones barely ages despite the passage of many years).
With a scope far narrower than its subject, it makes a pass at the complexities of love, but what’s onscreen requires more investigation. Rather than go for big ideas, the movie cozies up to small wonders. It clips Hawking’s achievements to an overview. Indeed, The Theory of Everything should have more theory: after all, Hawking famously excels at explaining complicated thoughts with layman simplicity. These many problems may be easy to ignore at first – in the elation of watching Redmayne and the gossamer Jones as they stroll and spin, bathed in milky, blurry compositions – but they’re impossible to shake off by the time the credits are rolling.
Yet when so many 2014 releases are falling prey to great performances in decent films, one can’t begrudge them all. The Theory of Everything nestles into your consciousness with soft lighting and broaches common themes through the tale of a man who studies the universe. Sheer poppycock, perhaps, but elegant, involving, inflected with taste, and one of at least four Oscar-jackpots that are about to thunder through the multiplex. It will melt most of your reservations away.