The Theory of Everything is little more than an Oscar-bait biopic movie about an important person – in this case Stephen Hawking – that details his life in a way that isn’t inherently cinematic so it comes across (like so many biopics) as not so much a movie but a greatest hits package. But like so many biopics, like Ray or The Iron Lady, it’s centered on a showy performance – here from Eddie Redmayne – which was catnip to the Academy. As a piece of filmmaking it’s flaccid, but there are enough interesting qualities to it to make it worth a watch.
First and foremost, the best reason to watch the film is the performance by Felicity Jones – and not just because she’s going to be starring in the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One – who gives the more interesting performance as Jane Hawking. The film begins with Stephen as an active man who is a genius but reticent with the ladies (he’s slow to call Jane and doesn’t like to dance). The two have a romance but after he falls down on campus he’s told he has motor neuron disease and is unlikely to live more than two years. This leads him to reject Jane, but she is forceful and the two get married and have kids.
The film was adapted from Jane Hawking’s book about her life with Stephen, which may be why she is the more interesting figure. Or perhaps it’s because there’s no sense the film is as smart as Stephen – something made obvious when the film tries to show him having a big breakthrough by looking at a fire while a sweater is stuck on his head.
The film mostly goes through the biopic motions as Stephen loses more and more control of his body, with Redmayne transforming from a gawky but active person to a husk in a chair who communicates mostly through his eyes. On one hand this is impressive, and Redmayne delivers it well, but on the other, this is the sort of showy role that seems destined to win awards, and the sort actors take to win them. Perhaps it is a great triumph, but in comparison to the work of – say Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot – it doesn’t feel like one of the all-time great transformations into a cripple. In fact, it’s hard to think of a role like this where the actor doesn’t deliver so it’s hard to get a comparative sense of the greatness. Politically, it’s easy to understand why Redmayne won the best actor Oscar, there’s more “acting” on screen here, while Michael Keaton (considered his greatest competition) doesn’t deliver his best work ever in a role that plays as a celebration of the actor’s gifts, but then that has little to do with the movies themselves.
But while the film goes through the motions of the biopic, the film becomes interesting when it deals with the Hawking’s home life as Stephen needs more and more help and Jane begins to rely upon Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox) to be both helper and part-time father. As Stephen’s relationship history can be gleaned from his Wikipedia page, perhaps this is spoiler territory, but it’s this part of the story that gives the film it’s most interesting elements.
When Stephen and Jane have a third child, many think it might be Jonathan’s, and that sends John away, but then the film shows Stephen coming to him and basically saying “hey, it’s okay if you sleep with my wife, I don’t know how long I’m going to be around.” And then when Stephen gets a pretty nurse who seems better equipped at handling his needs, he and Jane get divorced, and everyone’s okay with it. The portrait of their relationship is fascinating as there is a sense that Stephen thinks of Jane as someone who stuck around partly because of a Nightingale effect, and though they are happy together, as his body decays he realizes that he’s not the best dad. The fact that the film sees this without a negative moral judgment, that it accepts that fidelity or normalcy is untenable in their relationship is where the film is at its best. The film also succeed in showing the conflict between Stephen – who is agnostic at best – and Jane – who goes to church regularly – and shows that they can live together without compromising their values, and there’s a good conclusion to this element of the film.
But if you think about the great biopics – and the sequence where they shoot 16mm film reminded me of Raging Bull – you realize this is just about the least interesting way to tell the story of a genius. Director James Marsch and screenwriter Anthony McCarten aren’t able to deliver much more than what’s expected, with a narrative that has little meat on its bone, while the film is peppered with great character actors who have little to do (Emily Watson and David Thewlis are wasted). If you are interested in Hawking, you’re better off reading his books, or watching the Errol Morris film A Brief History of Time. Still, The Theory of Everything wasn’t the tedium I expected.
Universal’s Blu-ray comes with a DVD and digital copy, and the film is presented in widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio. The film was shot digitally, something that is readily apparent in this transfer. The film comes with limited supplements, with the meat being a commentary track by director James Marsch, who talks about how great the actors are and the intentions of each sequence. It’s a solid track for those who care. Also included are eight deleted scenes (11 min.) with optional commentary by the director that were smartly cut, and the paper thin featurette “Becoming the Hawkings” (7 min.).