The Theory of Everything is the new biopic of physicist, author and all-round cultural icon Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), who meets his future wife Jane (Felicity Jones) while studying at Cambridge in the early 1960s, before being diagnosed with motor neurone disease and given two years to live.
Redmayne’s transformative performance is just like watching the real professor, completely mastering Hawking’s body language, personality and facial ticks, right down to the twinkle in his eye. He avoids reducing the character to his disability and does justice to this great man, whose iconic computerised voice speaks volumes for human endeavour, diversity and humility.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film struggles to match up to Redmayne’s performance. Despite Hawking’s undoubtable significance, his family life isn’t all that cinematic, which leaves us with a bunch of fairly unexceptional moments strung together with biopic shorthand and dreary music. The result is a pedestrian and often dull drama whose syrupy romance is a poor substitute for compelling narrative. With its soft-focus afternoon glow, The Theory of Everything is more tea in the garden than explosions in space.
There’s also the customary explaining of physics using whatever’s to hand, such as peas or potatoes. “Imagine this bowl of soup is the universe, and this crouton here is a black hole. And this spoon is a unifying theory explaining all of time. Could you pass the salt?” It all leaves you clueless about physics, but very hungry. On top of this is an unnecessary sequence involving a pen and a weird scene where Felicity Jones ignores the colour yellow. But her’s is another impressive performance, with strong support from Charlie Cox, Maxine Peake and David Thewlis.
The problem with biopics like this is twofold. Firstly, there’s the difficult task of squeezing significant events into a very short space of time, which means Hawking learns of his disease, becomes depressed and then gets over it within about ten minutes. Secondly, the biopic’s protagonist must constantly talk about whatever it is they’re known for, even in irrelevant situations. So The Theory of Everything‘s romantic scenes are dominated by the discussion of physics. These two characteristics have the odd effect of reducing a real life into quite a non-naturalistic experience.
The Theory of Everything is a gentle and romantic drama that suffers from its lacklustre narrative and biopic-by-numbers familiarity. But although the film doesn’t fully do justice to its great subject, Redmayne’s performance certainly does. He deserves the inevitable Oscar for his sensitive portrayal of a man who has continually defied the odds and will probably outlive us all.