Stephen Hawking is the perfect movie subject. He’s a world-famous physicist. He’s charming and funny. And he defied the odds to turn his motor neurone disease diagnosis – and the accompanying average life expectancy of two years – into fifty years of success. That probably explains why The Theory of Everything is, by my count, the fourth feature film to tell his story, succeeding Errol Morris’ documentary A Brief History of Time, British telemovie Hawking – with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead – and the (mostly forgotten) 2013 doco of the same name.
It stands to reason, then, that the fourth iteration would have to do some serious legwork to distinguish itself from the pack (and, oh, say, pick up five Oscar nominations while it’s at it). The Theory of Everything, to its credit, executes its familiar biopic formula with aplomb. James Marsh’s direction is a hair above competent, mixing up big, capital-P Prestige filmmaking – an embrace on a starlit bridge is shot with a crane shot and illuminated by fireworks since of course it is – with some almost outré touches – such as slapping a nostalgic blue filter over the first meeting of Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his first wife Jane (Felicity Jones), or enveloping Hawking with an irate red hue as he stews after learning of his disease.
The real talent is in front of the camera though, with both Redmayne and Jones demonstrating that often the kind of performances that get Oscar nominations practically by default – the tortured genius and his long-suffering wife – can be imbued with real humanity and skill. Redmayne’s Golden Globe-winning performance has attracted criticism for being “the latest in a long line of non-disabled actors to portray disabled characters.” But his off-kilter charm reverberates off the screen long before he’s confined to a wheelchair, his sly humour subverting the “awkward genius” trope the dialogue skirts towards.
Jones is a more-than-capable counterpart, with a brittle, symmetrical precision to offset Redmayne’s crooked physicality. Unfortunately, she’s rarely more than a counterpart. She’s a complement, another marginalised wife eclipsed by the supermassive singularity of her husband’s talent. This is exactly where The Theory of Everything should have separated itself from its predecessors, since it’s based on Jane’s memoirs of her marriage, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen (her second, kinder memoirs; her first, written after an unhappy divorce, was not as generous to her ex-husband). Unfortunately, most of the problems with the film can be laid at the feet of screenwriter Anthony McCarten, whose work drags the film down towards mediocrity despite its incandescent lead performances.
I totally understand the inclination to focus on Stephen over Jane, given the latter is famous for being married to the former. But the film feels like a missed opportunity to provide a fresh twist on a tired genre, centring its story not on the genius at its centre but on the woman orbiting him. It’s not that Jane is entirely ignored – the film adopts her perspective from time to time, particularly as she develops a bond with a church choirmaster (Charlie Cox) – but that the film can’t help be sucked back towards Stephen just as we start to get a fully developed sense of who she is. Perhaps the most telling moment is when, just as Jane’s camping trip with said choirmaster tilts towards temptation, we are snapped back into Stephen’s trajectory after he suffers a life-threatening bout of pneumonia. Any chance of the film becoming a full-fledged two-hander is swatted away in kind.
(The film’s ungenerous approach to its female characters extends beyond Jane. Stephen’s mother Isobel crackled off the screen in A Brief History of Time; but, as played by Abigail Cruttenden in The Theory of Everything, her only substantive lines are shrill accusations of adultery. Naturally, Stephen’s father (Simon McBurney) is given plenty of dialogue.)
Most of my other complaints can be directed towards The Theory of Everything’s screenplay: its insistence on treating every scientific discovery like an episode of Masterchef; its underdeveloped, ham-handed religion vs science theme; the way its stiff upper-lip approach to a crumbling marriage blunts the drama; its over-written foreshadowing like “She’s waiting for you”; and a monumentally misjudged dream sequence that overemphasises Hawking’s physical disability while making him seem less charming and more creepy. To linger on these shortcomings is to neglect the film’s abundant charms: namely, Redmayne and Jones. While The Theory of Everything never quite overcomes the trapping of the stately British biopic, it nonetheless demonstrates why such films continue to impress audiences.