In The Theory of Everything, English thesps Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones play out an arc made from the stuff of fairly boilerplate romantic comedy tropes. They have their meet-cute; they flirt; they fall head over heels for each other; when tragedy strikes, they commit to stick together through thick and thin, at least until things grow too thick to bear and they must painfully part ways. But then, by the time the film comes to a close, they’re reunited in a fashion, and we breathe a sigh of relief. Normalcy is more or less restored!
Only, Redmayne and Jones aren’t portraying normal people leading normal existences. They are instead portraying Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde, he one of the world’s greatest scientific minds, she his long suffering but deeply compassionate and empathetic wife. The Theory of Everything is the story of the life they lived together, from their first encounters in 1960s Cambridge, to their years spent enduring Hawking’s battle with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, to their current situation of amicable separation. The film so handsomely commemorates Hawking’s contributions to his field along the way that one could be forgiven for mistakenly assuming that the stage belongs to Redmayne alone, but he shares it quite happily with Jones. In point of fact, the picture accords them both richly deserved individual attention rather than focus foremost on its leading man.
The Theory of Everything is directed by James Marsh, a filmmaker perhaps best known for his 2008 super-stylized documentary effort, Man On Wire. Here, Marsh doesn’t simply document his central subject as much as he makes an embellished chronicle of Hawking’s extraordinary career achievements. Admirably, he does so with unexpected restraint and propriety—after all, movies like this tend more toward melodrama. The Theory of Everything, in fairness, does seem to, on paper, sound an awful lot like your standard “struggling genius” pictures, and in many ways it looks like one too. The picture milks adversity, quietly at first and then more loudly as the plot pleasantly idles forward. It’s a strategy designed to wring maximum waterworks from an emotionally vulnerable audience, and kudos to Marsh, because it genuinely succeeds.
The film means to manipulate us, as all films do, but in making his dedication to a great man (and a great woman), Marsh has actually made a movie about dedication itself. Even better: it’s more persuasive than coercive. He encourages us to feel for Stephen and Jane instead of browbeating us. Science plays a role in the film’s emotional tug of war, but fear not if you’re disinclined toward the study of theoretical physics: The Theory of Everything presents Hawking’s discoveries in economical terms; your eyes will not glaze over during lecture hall sequences. In part, that’s because Marsh understands when enough is enough as far as dispensing knowledge is concerned, but Marsh is also more obviously concerned with human beings than he is in theories that have irrevocably changed the way we see the world. (Your mileage with the film may vary if you believe that his priorities are out of whack.)
So kudos to Marsh for trying to find a proper inroad through the tangled tropes of the dreaded biopic. Films like The Theory of Everything are made to educate a broad audience on a person or persons of interest; in following that pursuit, they’re usually maudlin, aimed bazooka-like right at our emotional sweet spots. While The Theory of Everything definitely targets a large viewership, and definitely is warily mushy, it’s earnest despite its formulaic trappings. Above all, it’s anchored by Redmayne’s and Jones’s outstanding performances as they recreate the many trials and tribulations the Hawkings endured throughout their marriage. (Arguably, Mr. Redmayne is tasked with more of a highwire act than Ms. Jones, but don’t let the comparison detract from her wonderful, delicate work.) The Theory of Everything is only a routine movie devoted to two extraordinary people, but at least they’ve each been gifted with extraordinary actors to portray them.
Director: James Marsh
Writer: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Charlie Cox, Harry Lloyd
Release Date: Nov. 7th, 2014
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.