When making a biopic that covers a significant timespan in a subject’s life, there is a great risk of producing a formulaic film that lacks focus. In this regard, The Theory of Everything takes a great leap in an attempt to tell the story of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s genius and struggle with ALS in the context of his dissolving marriage to Jane Wilde, but unfortunately doesn’t land. The most disappointing of this year’s Best Picture nominees, The Theory of Everything is a conventional biopic about an unconventional life.
This lack of focus makes it difficult to understand the filmmakers’ intention and is the film’s ultimate downfall. The story incorporates the development of a crippling disease, the balance between work and family, and the deterioration of a relationship, but these elements are vignettes haphazardly thrown together in attempt to create an interesting story. For example, the screenplay fails to establish the reason for Hawking and Jane’s attraction to each other, making the eventual crumbling of their marriage less heartbreaking. Additionally, there is no deep dive into the impact of Hawking’s theories or what makes his mind so incredible. The film leaves you wanting more, but not in a good way.
Perhaps the only redeeming quality of The Theory of Everything is the performance by its two leads that manage to add flesh to an underweight screenplay. In the flashy Oscar-bait role as Hawking, Eddie Redmayne, does an incredible job embracing the physical elements of the progression of Hawking’s crippling disease, brilliantly recreating the crooked positions of Hawking’s fingers, his uneven gait, and his slumping posture. Although he loses mobility and the ability to speak, his brain never stops working, and you can see it in the sparkle in Redmayne’s eyes.
While the film may be a showpiece for Redmayne, it’s Felicity Jones who carries its emotion and narrative as Jane, a woman trying to balance an academic career and a family as well as her inner conflict of what to do about her husband. She married Hawking because she truly loves him, but she did not expect him to live more than two years and need constant care for at least twenty more. Through this intense strain, Jones infuses Jane with complexity and strength, making her just as, if not more, fascinating than Redmayne’s Hawking.
Still, for a person who is as noteworthy in the scientific and pop-culture lexicons as Stephen Hawking, one would expect a film that gives a more complete picture of his brilliance and his struggles. Instead, we get a story that is generalized and clichéd. But The Theory of Everything’s greatest weakness is that it’s uncertain of what it is. Is it a movie about a deteriorating relationship? Hawking’s scientific achievements? Struggling with a debilitating disease? It’s too difficult to determine, and it’s quite a shame.