The Theory of Everything opens in New York City and Los Angeles today. The film expands in subsequent weeks, opening in Chicago on November 14, 2014.
Reconciling reality and expectation is tricky business in the art of film criticism, particularly when confronted with preconceived reservations of genre and awards buzz. So, settling into James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, a biopic about eminent theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, it takes some effort to disengage from what I believe the film should be and what the film is. What the film is not is a salient analysis of Hawking’s theories and research. Rather, The Theory of Everything is a traditional greatest-hits picture that looks into Hawking’s first marriage while he combats his rapid physical decay. Parlaying much of the headiness of Hawking’s theories for something broader and emotionally poignant, Marsh infuses a measure of formal and thematic nuance in material that would have otherwise been construed as trite. The Theory of Everything, with all of its sentimental trappings and matrimonial cacophony, may not be the sort of film one would associate with its subject; to put it lightly, it’s slight.
Marsh’s film is adapted from Jane Hawking’s second biography of her husband, the appropriately titled Traveling to Infinity. The film traces Stephen’s (Eddie Redmayne) years in Cambridge as a doctoral student. Possessing the rambunctiousness of a teenager with the learnedness of a genius, Marsh is quick to hammer the cosmic innocence of Stephen’s future plights. Marsh highlights this by displaying Stephen in congruity with a spiraling universe through the movement of a bicycle wheel, the expansion of an iris, or the swirl of cream in coffee. We’re quickly introduced to Jane (Felicity Jones). Her spirituality operates in contrast to Stephen’s iconoclastic and literal-minded perspective. The first act is devoted to their courtship, where Marsh probes their intellectual inclinations - her devotion to the arts, his devotion to the sciences - though they remain resolutely drawn to each other. Soon after, Stephen is diagnosed with motor neuron disease and given two years to live.
The opening act is a particularly rocky and morally dubious proposition, notable in the way that Marsh frames Stephen’s impending diagnosis. He perpetually teases disaster to befall Stephen, whether in the form of a slight misstep walking down subway stairs or a spiraling dance with Jane, where his legs seem to be falling from right under him. This false sense of tension doesn’t do the film any favors and registers as a desperate dramatic device. The film remedies this problem by shifting perspectives away from Stephen and onto Jane. It’s a surprising but welcome transition that’s given generous time to unfold. As Jane serves as a caretaker to her husband, her own needs and the needs of their children go malnourished. It’s one of the few genuinely interesting insights the film makes, where a family serves in the shadow of genius.
Redmayne’s performance reflects the thinness of the material, which is to say that the actor is functioning on a technically proficient level but his performance doesn’t extend beyond superficial tics and mannerism; he gives a good impression. Jones fairs better, if only because the scripting is less about science and more about politics: the sexual politics of polyamory. It’s striking to consider that it’s the film’s polyamory that registers as its most contemplative aspect, but the domestic sphere of the picture is well-handled. As Jane contends with motherhood and caring for her husband, the wear of her youth is something that plays a pivotal role in her distancing from Stephen. Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten make no effort to vilify either Stephen or Jane in their emotional and sexual distancing, but rather explore the situation in a humane and delicate way. The picture’s best sequence involves the two separating, decades after his diagnosis, and neither could’ve anticipated the trajectory of their lives.
Yet for a film about one of the most brilliant individuals on the planet, there’s little in the way of genius to be found in the film. This forces me to reconcile what one is to expect out of a picture and what it provides. Would the film have succeeded if it remained more closely aligned to Stephen’s science? Or perhaps it could have reconciled some of its issues by being a film more closely tied to Jane’s experiences? Instead, the end result is a picture of half-hearted conceit, one of minor consequence and easily digestible insights. This would normally be something to shrug off but for a film about a man who has contributed to the betterment of understanding the universe, The Theory of Everything does its subject a genuine disservice.