The Theory of Everything has all the right ingredients to be a major award contender. It’s a period set drama that has happened within our lifetimes, it has some great talent in the main roles, and it’s about a world-famous scientist who everyone loves. Sometimes a film comes together to be more than the sum of its ingredients. Other times, like this time, it doesn’t.
The Theory of Everything isn’t bad though, it’s just that it suffers from all the problems that biopics tend to suffer from and the two great central performances aren’t quite enough to elevate the film above that.
The story follows Stephen Hawking from his time at university studying for his doctorate and the relationship with his first wife, Jane. They meet while they are both young and fall in love and get married despite his having been diagnosed with motor neurone disease. He was only supposed to have two years to live and instead is still going strong 40 odd years later.
What the film really shows is that Stephen Hawking is kind of a dick. Not an extraordinary one really –men are dicks all the time– but for most of his adult life he’s nearly completely dependant on Jane, refusing all other help and exhausting her in the process. When he finally does accept help in the form of a nurse, he leaves Jane for the nurse. All while confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak for himself. OK so maybe he is extraordinary (and none of this is spoilers because it happened recently enough that I can remember hearing about it).
Jane, for her part, does have a dalliance with a young man but never acts on it. She develops feelings for a family friend but there’s no grand moment, there just a very stereotypically British moment of “I have feelings for you, therefore we must part”. They both keep a stiff upper lip and don’t see each other again until Jane is divorced.
There’s also a great deal of talk about how brilliant Stephen Hawking is, and I don’t doubt that he is, however all the science is completely glossed over in the film. We know that he’s working on his doctorate at the start and that a lecture from a fellow scientist inspires his work, but then we get one scene of “here’s a theory” and then another of “well done old chap!” as the university hands him a doctorate. We know there’s a black hole in there somewhere but that’s about it. Later he has another idea about how black holes might work contrary to his thesis and presents that to a group of scientists, and the scene is saying “this changes everything” but we weren’t given enough information in the first place to understand why we should care about the new revelation.
Look, I know this is nitpicky stuff but it’s the kind of stuff that can keep a good movie from being a great one and that’s what’s happened here. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are both great, David Thewlis shows up and is his usual suave British self. Charlie Cox shows up in the second act and is utterly charming. None of this is enough to get past the skipping forward in time without enough visual cues to always notice right away or the cheesy 16mm film reel “look at us in happy times” montages or the good friends from the first act who disappear until a moment at the end when the main character is being publicly recognized for his work. Yes, all these clichés exist in this movie.
It’s not enough to get by the lack of any real struggle between Jane and Stephen either; they have a few struggles but they’re depicted as happy all the time right up until they are not. The few scenes where they do have real emotionally trying conflict are fantastic but they are few and far between. Most of the opportunities to delve deeper into the characters as they are going through hard times are passed over.
Eddie Redmayne will probably be nominated (at least) for some awards for his work here, he not only looks like Hawking but he does very well in the first act with the more subtle effects of the onset of Professor Hawkings deterioration. Felicity Jones likely will as well, and hopefully this film will serve as her big break and get her cast in more higher profile films.
The Theory of Everything is a competent film but it isn’t much more than that. It’s not bad, but it’s not great either. It’s in that no mans land of just being OK.