A brief, clichéd history of genius
After Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, it has become almost too easy to mock and dismiss the conventions of the traditional biopic. Although uneven as a comedy, Jake Kasdan’s 2007 parody so effectively spotlighted and skewered the hoary tropes of the genre that any film employing them with a straight face risks looking ridiculous. When The Theory of Everything, director James Marsh’s straight-faced biopic about theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane, fades into gauzy flashback within the first few minutes, I half expected Tim Meadows to step in and say, “You’re going to have to give them a moment. Stephen and Jane Hawking need to think about their entire marriage before he accepts a prestigious award.”
Clichés are not mandatory for the genre—films as diverse as Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There and Mike Leigh’s upcoming Mr. Turner have tossed aside biopic crutches while still landing an emotional and intellectual impact. But The Theory of Everything is engineered for maximum awards season appeal, and so it crams in as many of those conventions as it possibly can. Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten are especially fond of “bundling,” a narrative shortcut that squeezes several life-altering events into an absurdly abbreviated time span. Almost every significant moment in Stephen Hawking’s life seems to occur over an afternoon or two, and then for years at a time nothing happens.
McCarten adapted the screenplay from Jane Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, so although the film is focused almost entirely on Stephen’s life and career, this is really Jane’s story. That makes for a strange twist on the way that many Oscar-grubbing bio-pics portray the hero’s wife, usually seeing her as a blandly supportive piece of furniture—here, Jane becomes an observer to her own life. More than anything, this layperson’s entryway into Stephen’s life work seems like an excuse to dumb down his theories until they form an insipid and fairly one-sided conversation about the existence of God. According to Marsh and McCarten, Hawking’s greatest achievements as a scientist have been overcoming odds and inspiring people.
In addition to a handful of features, Marsh previously directed the excellent documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, so perhaps more was expected from him than this excessively tasteful “Just Do It” ad. It’s not an incompetent work—the cinematography by Benoît Delhomme (he also shot this year’s A Most Wanted Man), musical score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, costume design by Steven Noble and all of the other technical elements are eminently well-crafted and restrained and polite. The script has that same sort of numbing decency, whether dealing with the onset of Stephen’s physically debilitating motor neuron disease, his sex life with Jane or their mutual extramarital affairs.
The Theory of Everything would be close to unwatchable if not for the excellent performances of Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne as Jane and Stephen Hawking. Jones is given a thankless role—she has to carry all of the emotional and narrative baggage of the film while remaining on the margins of the story. It is uncannily similar to the role that she played earlier this year opposite Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman, and just as she did in that film, Jones injects a complexity and inner life into the character that may not have existed on the page.
Eddie Redmayne is an actor that I have struggled with in previous films, but he is a revelation here, displaying an immense technical craft and precision—he becomes Stephen Hawking, body and soul. It’s a role that comes to Redmayne fully doused in Oscar musk, especially since he gets to play the character from his socially awkward but physically fit college days through the stages of motor neuron disease and into middle age.
Marsh ups the awards-chum ante in the final reel by rewinding the entire film, allowing us to fully appreciate the physical regression of Redmayne’s performance in reverse time-lapse. Redmayne does bravura work, but The Theory of Everything doesn’t have the imagination or ambition to be anything more than his showpiece.