For certain people, critics and filmgoers alike, the concept of seeing The Theory of Everything could easily be something to be dreaded. Prestige biopics are a yearly winter ritual, always finding their way into the multiplexes in late November into December, always hunting for Oscar nominations for their lead actors or actresses. It is tough to blame them, as prestige biopics have earned the highest acting awards for Colin Firth and Jamie Foxx and Reese Witherspoon among many others. There is a well worn formula for these films, telling their inspirational stories behind swelling strings and standing ovations. This winter will see the release of Selma and The Imitation Game as par excellence examples of the genre, but The Theory of Everything is the first major biopic salvo to reach for its slice of the award season pie, this time through the lens of the life of the world’s most famous scientist, Stephen Hawking.
Eddie Redmayne plays Hawking, beginning as a college student before his neural degenerative disease had fully taken hold. His priorities are on finding his holy grail, a unified cosmological formula that would essentially explain the universe, and it is clear from early on that his intelligence is of another caliber than those around him, like his best mate Brian (Harry Lloyd) and his professor Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis). Complicating matters ever so slightly is the arrival of eventual wife and mother to his children Jane (Felicity Jones), a liberal arts major who has taken to Hawking’s peculiar personality. As Hawking’s aspirations and reputation grow, his motor skills recede, and it is not long before his feet no longer support him and his speech slurs. His spirit is indomitable, his focus on space and time and unlocking the secrets of the universe even as he can no longer hold his offspring or support himself in any way. It is within these constraints that Hawking does his best work, though his family life and the strain he puts on Jane threaten to upend his relationship with his most stalwart companion.
Like all biopics, at its core The Theory of Everything is about one person. Eddie Redmayne is the center of this film’s universe, and he has a heavy burden to carry on his shoulders. Everyone knows Stephen Hawking as he is now, the wheelchair-bound computer voiced man he has become, but Redmayne has to take the audience through that degeneration from the gangly, awkwardly charming school student obsessed with the questions of the cosmos into the slight physical shell for the ferocious mind he has become. The themes of the film practically write themselves, whether it is the power of the mind over the frailty of the body or the dangers of obsession and their adverse effects on those around the obsessed. Redmayne has to internalize all of this with the understanding that halfway through the film he will no longer be able to effectively communicate with his voice. It is an enormously demanding physical performance, and the physical performance alone likely would have been enough. But Redmayne succeeds in plumbing the depths of his character to get to the raw emotion of the piece, which elevates his Hawking beyond something with which to simply be impressed into something to be revered.
His partner in crime, Felicity Jones’ Jane, is another example of an actor doing more with the part than what would arguably be necessary. She is the put-upon wife, the companion who loves him and wants him to succeed, but cannot handle the avalanche of stress that comes from being the one woman to take care of her children and her ailing husband. James Marsh easily could have demonized Jane (either consciously or unconsciously) for her questionable relationship with a choir director (Charlie Cox) as Stephen approaches his nadir of physical weakness, but such a portrayal would be too reductive to be emotionally satisfying. Jane is a complex woman, and Jones provides a suitably complex performance, the gears in her head always turning as her domestic situation crumbles around her. Both of the leads here are at the top of their game, and their work elevates material that would otherwise easily tip over and tumble into the banal.
This is not to say the banal is entirely absent. There are moments, many of them in the third act, when screenwriter Anthony McCarten gives into his baser instincts and provides those sort of treacly moments that have soured prestige biopics in years past. Whether it is a standing ovation in front of swelling strings or an explosion of anger that feels a little too pat, The Theory of Everything is by no means as fresh as it could be. It hits all of the beats it is expected, and is not particularly innovative in its plotting (as much as plot can be innovative when based on true events). These events are a disappointment, and they do quite a bit of damage to the pacing and tone of the film’s final scenes. Still, its first two acts are accomplished to such an extent that they linger in the mind even as the film sours. At its best, The Theory of Everything is a surprisingly effective and at times devastating emotional experience that manages to offer some intriguing ideas (specifically regarding religion versus atheism) in the midst of its showcase of its two stars. At its worst, it exemplifies what is wrong with biopics as such. On the whole, it is at its best more often than it is at its worst, which allows for Redmayne and Jones to shine.