Eddie Redmayne’s performance in The Theory of Everything is simply marvellous; most big, important performances are about going broad and bursting out of the screen, but playing Stephen Hawking - who becomes closed in his motionless body - Redmayne is forced to go small, almost invisible in his performance. He is trapped in a chair and cannot move much of anything but his eyes, and he is still able to get across complex emotions.
He’s also able to get across what a total dick Hawking was. He’s kind of a dick in the usual ways that great men are dicks - he puts his work ahead of his family - but he’s also a dick in a pretty new way, in that even though he is immobilized in a wheelchair he’s able to cheat on his long-suffering wife. Hawking inspires us to believe that a handicap is no impediment to a man being a total fucking jerk.
Which is where the movie - otherwise a totally standard biopic - loses me. The Theory of Everything is very much about Hawking and also his ex-wife, Jane, but the movie should truly be completely about Jane. It should be her POV entirely, the story of how a woman deals with being married not just to a man whose health issues require much patience but whose God complex requires even more from her. And sure, the movie goes there, but it’s simply not Jane’s story.
It’s too bad because Felicity Jones could carry the whole film. Much as Redmayne’s transformation from a goody nerd to a withering husk is impressive so is Jones’ change from a wide-eyed schoolgirl to a hardened, tough woman trying to make her life work. Jones is sensitive and lovely and I found myself rooting for Jane to simply roll Hawkings down the stairs more than once.
I wish the film intended to make me feel that way. You must give Anthony McCarten’s screenplay credit for not shying away from the fact that Hawking left his wife for his nurse - a more timid movie would have saved that nugget for a title card just before the credits - but the movie refuses to judge the man or his actions. There’s a lot of complexity the film could play with, including the fact that Jane decided to stay with Hawking when he became ill very early in their relationship - ill in a way that everyone thought would kill him within two years - and then gets stuck with the guy for years and years.
The marketing is playing this as a great love story, but a more interesting version of these same events would examine the underlying tragedy of a young girl making a romantic leap and then getting trapped in this relationship much as Hawking is trapped in his own body. But that would require The Theory of Everything to be tough-minded and willing to stray from the standard biopic playbook. That would require a movie that turns a skeptical eye on one of the great minds of our time. This movie is unwilling to do that.
It’s hard to see this film as anything but a disappointing misstep in James Marsh’s career. His documentaries have been so much more clear-eyed and deeper than The Theory of Everything, and this movie is so far from the intriguing complexity of Red Riding: 1980 that it feels like another director made it. This is a movie constructed, from top to bottom, as an attempt to get invited to the Oscars.
As Oscar bait it’s fine - The Theory of Everything is handsomely made and filled with strong performances from great actors. But this could have been so much more - it could have been actually illuminating, it could have tackled the big wonders of the universe that Hawking has tried to explain, it could present us a more human and troubling look at the great man. Or it should have just simply been Jane’s movie.
For all the advanced math that Hawking talks about in The Theory of Everything, the film itself is ultimately by the most basic numbers possible.