Directed By: James Marsh
Written By: Anthony McCarten (screenplay), Jane Hawking(book)
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Tom Prior
Biopics of infamous figures are a tough shell to crack. In order to adequately cover the massive scope of someone’s life you are left with a bullet point like approach where we move from one infamous moment to the next. We get to see the macro of life—massive accomplishments, heartbreaking failures, and overcoming and enduring unimaginable tragedy. The micro of life, who they are beyond the already established public sentiment, is quickly brushed over in order to get to the familiar story we already know.
Obviously this is not the case for all biopics as some have transcended the genre on a number of occasions. Director James Marsh is one of the latest to attempt to do the biopic right with the film The Theory of Everything, which covers the life of renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Oddly a film that covers a life so full of bravery is lacking the will to challenge. Taking complex issues and simplifying them to easily digestible tidbits. It is the equivalent of seeing an addiction story through the eyes of Saved by the Bell. Much of the harsh reality is softened.
What saves it from being a complete wash are the powerhouse performances from its two main leads. Eddie Redmayne who plays Hawking is a near lock for future nominations. Obviously it is a feat in physical acting. He eloquently displays the devastating effects of Hawking’s motor neuron disease from early foreshadowing like the awkward way he holds a pencil to the displaying the full devastating extent of the disease, Never does it seem like you a watching an actor perform. What makes it more than an exercise in mannerisms is Redmayne’s ability to capture the inquisitive spirit of Hawking along with his sly and well-timed wit. Redmayne remembers it is about the person he is representing not just the disease he is inflicted with.
We meet Hawking in the midst of his college career at Cambridge. Sheepish , unassuming, and seemingly healthy he does not embody the personality of a man who will make the world reconsider the way we look at the fundamental building blocks of life. However, it does not take his fellow students and teachers to notice his capabilities are found beyond those of even the best students. It is also in college where Hawking meets perhaps his greatest challenge—trying to get a woman to fall in love with him.
In all intents and purposes The Theory of Everything is at its heart a love story. Based on the memoir of Jane Hawking, Stephen’s former wife, we see how their relationship blossomed in the most demanding conditions. Felicity Jones plays the part of Jane in a performance equal to that of Redmayne. Strong willed but never over bearing, she is the cog that keeps everything moving. A devout Christian she is also not shy to challenge Hawking’s atheist beliefs and Hawking welcomes her jabs. Despite their differing opinion and Hawking’s diagnosis of two years to live their devotion leads them to marry and begin a unique life together.
It is worth stating that this screenplay is based on the updated version of the memoir that was published in 2008. The original, which was published nearly ten years earlier, was much more critical of Hawking and the way he treated Jane. At times it does feel like you are witnessing the whitewashed version of this story. Arguments are always unnaturally cordial. Serious issues like possible adultery are only hinted at if not completely brushed over.
It is like we are watching the movie after the Priest from Cinema Paradiso has cut out any splices of film that contain questionable behavior. Last year we had the notable biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which is a movie with its own set of problems. However, what it succeeded at was not shying away from the faults of even the noblest of men. Displaying how the path to greatness is not solely paved with simple niceties. Here we get the tea time version of a life full of struggle.
Director James Marsh does seem like the person who could overcome the normal barriers that are typically associated with biopics. With his background in documentaries like Man on Wire or Project Nim he was able to tell a version of the biopic that was much more artistically designed than the norm. Here his style is rather muted. There are some flourishes like demonstrating Hawking’s inspiration with the spinning of creamer inside blackened tea or watching him observe the glowing ambers of a roaring fire through the outstretched fibers of a wool sweater that lend some imagery to Hawking’s mental processing power. Besides those moments Marsh’s direction is bland and ordinary.
One of Marsh’s most questionable choices is his use of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score. It is perhaps the most stereotypical aspect of the entire film as it over emphasizes nearly every emotional beat. Similar to the entire film it lacks its own identity sounding like the stereotypical music you have heard time and time again.
Theory of Everything will no doubt come off as the translucent orange barb of Oscar bait with its heady subject matter. In many ways it deserves that classification. If you listen closely enough you may be able to hear the faint sounds of off camera crew members rehearsing their future Awards speech. When it comes to the performances that practice is needed as pending accolades are surely to come their way. The rest of the film would have been better off realizing that great stories do not always lead to great storytelling.