At its best, “The Theory of Everything” depicts the often normal, yet struggle-filled family dynamic of a man with a disability and illness and how his condition affects those who love him. At its worst, James Marsh’s biopic on Stephen Hawking is about watching a genius squirm.
“The Theory of Everything” depicts the life of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his fight with Lou Gehrig’s disease through the perspective of his long-time wife Jane (Felicity Jones), starting first when they met and fell in love as college students in Cambridge and leading all the way until the publishing of his world famous book “A Brief History of Time.” Across that near 50-year time span, the film shows in sometimes agonizing detail the rapid decay of his body, from going under the knife for surgery, to crawling up a flight of stairs, to straining to speak or even move his wrists.
In exchange we get a broad sense of admiration for his brilliance and some slices of his home life, like letting his children ride on his electric wheelchair and exchanging pleasantries with his wife. But a single film that tells us all we need to know about love and life, i.e. The Theory of Everything, its not.
Like the real Hawking, Marsh’s film is not without a sense of humor or even whimsy. We see a young Hawking cradled in the arms of a giant statue as his college chum fetches his wheelchair, and the film dances in beautifully lensed, fairy tale shades of gold and blue. It’s almost all too precious, with a maudlin score making the whole film a stuffy affair, and the fact that although this is Britain in the swinging ‘60s, the movie looks like a traditional Victorian Age drama.
Redmayne’s performance thankfully keeps the film grounded. As a co-ed, Redmayne plays Hawking with a mix of smarmy, aloof charm while also being cripplingly awkward and nerdy around pretty girls like Jane. As he grows ill and Marsh piles on the melodrama, Redmayne’s work recalls the all-too physical and broad acting of Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot,” feeling completely lived in but always straining for attention. It’s only until closer to Hawking’s old age that Redmayne feels completely natural with his mannerisms.
In truth though, the movie belongs to Jane. Jones displays great growth as an innocent yet brainy girl who grows firm and nurturing as she matures. She’s the one who needs help more so than Hawking does, and watching her grapple with her devotion to her husband and her effort to never lose face is the most affecting. Jones’s work shows that the people in the lives of a disabled individual often have to work as hard as those they’re nursing.
And yet the movie still finds more occasions for us to suffer rather than enlighten us about Hawking’s ideas or his personality. “The Theory of Everything” has the airs of one of the most moving and inspirational stories about our generation’s greatest thinker. But it only finds his genius at the cost of his pain and does not appear to have put the same level of thought into what makes this man or his story so great.