THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING Movie Review – Oscar Bait Biopic Doesn’t Disappoint
With the summer a distant memory and fall slipping inexorably into winter, Oscar season – specifically Oscar-bait biopics – arrives just as inexorably and just as inevitably. Look no further than The Theory of Everything, the Stephan Hawking biopic directed by documentarian-turned-feature-filmmaker James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim). The Theory of Everything has practically everything Academy members could possibly want in an Oscar-bait biopic. It’s not just based on a true story, it’s based on a familiar, pop-culture friendly scientist-author suffering from a lifelong malady, motor neuron disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) by another name, giving the lead actor the opportunity to stretch in ways most films don’t require. It’s also a period piece, set in England no less (a favorite for Anglophiles in the Academy). Despite its preprogrammed, formulaic nature, however, The Theory of Everything offers an insightful, if it should be added, sanitized, look at an unconventional relationship, Hawking’s twenty-year marriage to Jane Wilde.
When we first meet Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), he’s a cosmology graduate student at Cambridge. Awkward, shy, and, of course, brainy, Hawking seemingly embodies every cliché about genius-level scientists in popular culture. That physical awkwardness, however, foreshadows the lifelong illness that eventually robs Hawking of everything except limited control in one hand (he loses his speech due to a life-saving tracheotomy). To everyone around him, he’s just Stephan Hawking, destined for greatness in his chosen field, but to Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a medieval poetry student, it’s his geeky awkwardness and lyrical descriptions of cosmology that lead her to fall in love with Stephan (and vice versa, for more dissimilar reasons).
Even when he’s diagnosed with motor neuron disease and given two years to live, Jane doesn’t turn or run away. She stands steadfast at his side, becoming a nurturing wife and soon enough, the mother to three children. Despite his doctor’s dire diagnosis, Hawking’s life extends well beyond the two years given him (he’s still alive and at 72, outlived his prognosis by almost five decades). As other scientists and the world at large begin to recognize Hawking’s next-level contributions to science –taken mostly on faith as The Theory of Everything has little time or patience for actual science – Stephan and Jane’s relationship begins to show signs of strain. Jane becomes friendly with a widowed choirmaster, Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), a relationship Stephan consciously encourages, while Stephan develops a close emotional bond with his nurse, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake).
The Theory of Everything focuses almost exclusively on Stephan and Jane’s marriage, with his work, their children, and various other people satellites orbiting their relationship, unsurprising given that The Theory of Everything is based on Jane’s book. Not that The Theory of Everything offers anything scandalous or disturbing about Stephan’s behavior. Minus his early withdrawal into depression after he’s diagnosed with motor neuron disease, the Stephan we meet in The Theory of Everything rarely strays from an overall positivity toward life and work. The strains of Jane’s caretaker role, a frustrated glance here, a disappointed face there, gradually take center stage. To its credit, The Theory of Everything doesn’t cast either Stephan or Jane as villains, simply two people who married young, suffered and overcame seemingly insurmountable difficulties, and who, over time, grew apart as their interests, desires, and outlooks inevitably changed.
Unfortunately, Marsh isn’t shy or reticent to play up the heavier emotional moments in The Theory of Everything, covering practically every emotional beat with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s piano-centric score or brightening those same scenes through Benoît Delhomme’s picture postcard-worthy cinematography. Restraint and subtlety rarely win Academy Awards, let along nominations, and Marsh was obviously not going to take any chances. Marsh’s directorial decisions, however, can do little to undermine Redmayne and Jones’ striking central performances as Stephan and Jane. In a film made for Academy voters, they give the equivalent of awards-worthy performances. While Redmayne arguably has the more difficult (and showy) role, forced to convey Hawking’s powerful intellect and inner life through limited gestures and facial expressions, Jones gives an otherwise passive, reactive role dimension and life.