The stories of great people, particularly the great thinkers, have been source material for a number of acclaimed and awarded biopics, a sub-genre that has evolved a lot in the last decade. You can tell just by comparing two of 2014’s best, each focused on one of the greatest British minds of the 20th century. There’s “The Imitation Game,” the suspenseful, “critical moment in the life of” take on the life of mathematician and computer grandfather Alan Turing, and then “The Theory of Everything,” an emotional romance taking the “snippets in the chronological life of” approach to theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.
Taken from Jane Hawking’s memoir, it makes sense why “The Theory of Everything” tells us more about her and Stephen’s relationship than it does about Stephen’s work. For those interested more in the science of Stephen’s life and work, it’s a film that will disappoint on some level; director James Marsh and writer Anthony McCarten are far more interested in the philosophy and ideology that influenced Stephen’s way of thinking, and how Jane influenced him as well.
“The Theory of Everything” is also a chronicle of a crippling disease. We meet Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) at Cambridge, where he meets and falls in love with Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) and shortly thereafter learns he’s suffering from ALS, a fatal disease. Stricken with depression, he tries to distance himself from Jane, but she insists on staying by his side. We slowly watch Stephen lose the ability to move parts of his body until he becomes wheelchair bound and can no longer speak. Yet miraculously the disease never claims his life, and never affects his mind, even if it does take a heavy toll on his family.
Redmayne certainly deserves all the praise in the world for being able to honestly and authentically portray the evolving disabilities, but his performance is so much more than such surface-level awards-bait fodder. Redmayne’s true accomplishment is how he lets Stephen’s personality grow and shine through despite of the physical limitations. Through eye contact and facial expressions, he paints something special despite the clear restrictions of his brush. Stephen’s spirit really shows, and it adds to what’s already an emotional film.
Yet Stephen is not the sole focal point of this movie. Jane is very much his equal, and in many ways, the film is really about her, a woman’s struggle to be the caretaker she set out to be, what it is like to feed and clothe and literally care for an internationally famous person incapable of doing those basic things for himself. She is a complex character, both strong and weak, shoving aside expectations of how she should or shouldn’t behave or think at every opportunity. A young-faced 30-year-old, Jones is trusted to convey age and maturity as the film goes on (the makeup doesn’t really get the job done), and she does in a way most actresses her age simply have yet to demonstrate in their careers.
Marsh and the film’s casting director, Nina Gold, deserve a whopping commendation for trusting in such young talent to convey these people at such mature stages of their relationship. Most films would’ve gone with older veterans knowing they could get away with them playing Stephen and Jane in their 20s and that later in the film they would fit naturally. Instead, they got two lesser-known but rising stars who have long careers ahead of them and could still probably fill these roles 15 years from now.
“The Theory of Everything” only lacks in compelling drama. It’s a portrait of two people and the ups and downs of their relationship, making it a much more indie take on the life of a famous person rather than the Hollywood prestige biopic route that won “A Beautiful Mind” the Best Picture Oscar. More concisely, it will move audiences far more than it will entertain them, which for the biographical genre, is actually refreshing.
The Theory of Everything
Directed by James Marsh
Written by Anthony McCarten, Jane Hawking (book)
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones