Starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. Rated G.
Biopics are by nature reductive enterprises, even more so when the subject is still alive. Of course, there’s no way to overplay the miracle of Stephen Hawking, a half century after he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which normally gives its victims about two years to survive.
Based on a memoir by ex-wife Jane Wilde, The Theory of Everything settles on Hawking’s early life, from his beginnings as a Wagner-loving physics student at Oxford to the creation of the wheelchair-bound thinker we know today.
The one “singer” who came out of Les Misérables unscathed, ginger-haired Eddie Redmayne is perfectly cast as Hawking; he maintains terrific expressivity within the steadily narrowing range of gestures available as the story progresses. But it’s Felicity Jones who dominates the two-hour tale, which is more specific regarding Jane’s steely determination than about her husband’s cosmological theories—although these are sketched out, briefly, with some intelligence. (Jones and Redmayne resemble each other, although the real Jane Wilde looked more like Zoe Kazan. Also, the scientist was played a decade ago, in a Brit TV movie, by Benedict Cumberbatch.)
This enterprise is handsomely mounted by director James Marsh, better known for tough documentaries like Man on Wire and Project Nim. And the script by Anthony McCarten—who wrote and directed an excellent New Zealand feature called Via Satellite—suggests Hawking’s complexities, starting with his cocky unevenness as a student. (David Thewlis has some nice bits as a supportive professor.) It’s hard, though, to know how much to trust the overly symmetrical plot development, which balances Jane’s interest in a handsome choirmaster (Boardwalk Empire’s Charlie Cox) with Stephen’s later fancy for his vivacious nurse (Maxine Peake).
The film’s more confused elements take over during a finish in which everything is thrown at the audience. Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson turns in a surprisingly ordinary score—one made weirdly laughable when the choirmaster suddenly plays the movie’s main theme on his church piano. Still, the acting is fiercely committed, and this Theory is made most convincing by French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, who recently shot the grittier A Most Wanted Man. Here, his soft colour palette and geometric lighting patterns offer surfaces that intrigue, and always invite deeper inspection.