“What do cosmologists worship?” Stephen Hawking’s (Eddie Redmayne’s) future wife Jane (Felicity Jones) asks upon first meeting him at a university-sponsored dance and learning of the science major’s distaste for religion, minutes into “The Theory of Everything.”
“One single unifying equation that explains everything in the universe,” Hawking responds, noting that the equation has not yet been discovered and that his life’s work will be to figure it out. As contrived as this meet-cute may be (“So that’s where the film’s title comes from!”), it is a good thing that screenwriter Anthony McCarten was able to integrate Hawking’s scientific objective into the dialogue, because aside from a few passing scenes involving barrages of technical lingo, the remainder of “The Theory of Everything” barely even touches on the content of Hawking’s extensive academic contributions.
In fact, the second half of the film is so consumed by the domestic drama of the Hawking household that one cannot help but wonder: When does this man work? He is shown publishing his landmark A Brief History of Time and travelling abroad to lecture, but the movie does not depict the hours upon hours of research that presumably went into to such accomplishments. There is a brief sequence in which Stephen, his body ravaged by ALS, begins to painstakingly type the book out using his single-clicker based computer, but nary a page of notes rests at his side. Even when Stephen is able-bodied, director James Marsh barely engages in chalk porn — that wonderful staple of biopics about mathematicians and scientists in which the subject fervently scrolls on a blackboard or a window, which reached its peak in Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind.” As “The Theory of Everything” would have it, Hawking’s theories on general relativity and black hole radiation simply materialized. Those looking to learn about the nitty-gritty of the man’s career should look elsewhere.
This all may read like the beginning of a damning critique of the film, but it is not; instead, I merely seek to communicate that “The Theory of Everything” must be approached as a family melodrama, not a nuanced examination of science or the academy. It comes as no surprise that it was adapted from Jane Hawking’s memoir, not Stephen’s, as the focuses are his physical disability and the natural toll that this, coupled with his fame, took on their marriage.
The logical question that emerges is: Do we really need to learn about Stephen Hawking’s personal life? Understanding the private struggles of a theoretical physicist does not provide any insight into his work — at least not the same kind of insight that one would glean from a biopic about an artist or a writer. Perhaps the most problematic thing about “The Theory of Everything” is that it never justifies its own existence, never asserts why we are watching all of this, other than to make ourselves appreciate life in that contrived sense uniquely fostered by the biopic genre.
In spite of its inessential quality, “The Theory of Everything” does what it does quite well, carried largely by two deeply human lead performances that overcome the canned nature of the biopic format. Eddie Redmayne not only credibly embodies Stephen’s profound physical transformation as he loses control of his body over the years, but also maintains an open window into Stephen’s emotions, even in spite of the performative restrictions. Jones transcends the conventional role of the burdened wife by focusing on her commitment to Stephen and the family rather than her suffering, giving the viewer the sense that she is able to control her own destiny without betraying them. Even as the two veer toward infidelity and their marriage crumbles, the enduring bond between them comes across as real and resonant thanks to the leads. The performances are so strong that not even the tidy biopic structure can artificialize the couple’s connection.
Director James Marsh’s styling is also handsome, if perhaps too polished for the material’s own good, with impeccably lensed widescreen compositions and cleverly integrated Super 8 footage. Certainly, “The Theory of Everything” does not come up short due to a lack of effort on the part of those involved. But whether they have made the right film about Hawking’s life is debatable.