The Theory of Everything (Focus Features, PG-13)

film theory_smIt’s a showy role, by turns requiring Redmayne to be convincingly brilliant, convincingly cute and charismatic, and convincingly very sick.

 

 

 

film theory

We’ve seen this story before—A Beautiful Mind is an obvious reference—where a brilliant, real-life figure is given a biopic to detail their life, success, love(s), etc. But we’ve never seen this story with Stephen Hawking, one of the most celebrated modern intellectual figures, which seems a bit odd, as it’s begging for an Oscar bait type of film: He has a British accent (before the speech-generating device, I mean) and a degenerative physical condition! That’s Oscar gold!

And an Oscar bait movie he shall have, in the form of James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, already seen as a frontrunner for the coming Oscar race, particularly for Eddie Redmayne’s depiction of Hawking. Though I’ve only seen Redmayne in a handful of films, I’ve never liked him at all, and so far have actively disliked him. His two best-known performances were as the main character Colin in My Week with Marilyn and as Marius in the 2012 film version of Les Misérables, and he was insufferable in both. Meanwhile, as an actor, he comes off like an egotistical poop in interviews. But, I have to admit that he is very good as Hawking. It’s a showy role, by turns requiring him to be convincingly brilliant, convincingly cute and charismatic, and convincingly very sick, and Redmayne inhabits the role not just as an imitation of the real Hawking (which he’s very good at, by the way), but in the creation of a fully blown character. (And Redmayne is British in the first place, so at least the accent isn’t a stretch.)

The thrust of The Theory of Everything isn’t so much Hawking’s contributions to the world of theoretical physics as it is his relationship with Jane Wilde, who was his partner during his college days, and who stayed with him through the diagnosis of ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease), eventually marrying him and becoming the mother of his three children. This makes the film easily accessible to people who don’t know much about quantum physics (pretty much everyone) and who enjoy a good love story (again, pretty much everyone). Wilde here is played by Felicity Jones, who is one of those actresses I’ve never once seen in a movie I liked, but whom I like as an actress. She turns in good performances in a couple of near-misses, most notably Like Crazy and The Invisible Woman, but she’s the best she’s ever been here, being the anchor to Redmayne’s justifiably showy performance. She has grace and poise oozing off of her, and is as charismatic in the meet-cute scenes in the beginning of the film as Redmayne is, and as the movie needs her to be.

But really, Redmayne and Jones’s performances are about the only things that make The Theory of Everything worth seeing; the rest of it is a by-the-books biopic/romance, which brings nothing new to the table. For a film about a man who has worked a lot with the theory of time, The Theory of Everything pays little or no attention to it, in a way that was presumably intentional but does not work. (Recall how Blue is the Warmest Color drifted through time without obvious signposts alerting you to where you were? Theory is like that, but carried off much worse.) There’s the inevitable reference to Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, lots of really meaningful gazing at the stars, a motif of spirals and twirling, and enough showy scenes to use as clips for three Oscar broadcasts.

If you want to see a good film about Hawking, you’re better off with Errol Morris’s 1991 documentary A Brief History of Time, handily released by Criterion on Blu-ray earlier this year. If you want a good, artful, unobvious film about an artist with a major physical impairment, go with Julian Schnabel’s 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. If you want to see a film likely to pick up plenty of acting awards in the coming couple of months, see The Theory of Everything—but don’t expect much else out of it than that. | Pete Timmermann

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