Why do films about geniuses almost invariably end up straight-laced and factory-issue? Is there something about trying to wrestle a story around a person so out of the norm that they seem from a different species altogether that makes the filmmaker recede as some kind of reflex? Perhaps there is some worry behind the scenes that the genius must be made approachable and human so as not to put off the moviegoers. Of course, the people paying to see the film in question most likely wanted to witness a story about somebody who was extraordinary. Why, then, would they want a perfectly ordinary film?
The Theory of Everything is a story about Stephen Hawking, arguably one of the most brilliant human beings ever to balance an equation. The screenplay is adapted from a book by his first wife, Jane Hawking, about the 30 challenging years they spent together. It has the stuff of riveting drama, from science-redefining theoretical discoveries to agonizing personal struggles. But the film, directed by James Marsh as though from the Twee Biopic Handbook, could not be more ordinary.
The film starts in the 1960s, with Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) at Cambridge. He’s shown as hardly a nose-down grubbing bookworm but more the lazy genius type, who dawdles his days away in the pub and in bed, popping into class at the last minute to show off-handedly how he easily solved a set of problems that left the rest of the class befuddled. When Jane (Felicity Jones) makes her appearance, their meeting is hardly auspicious. Just another couple of kids chatting at a party. But a romance blossoms, mostly due to Hawking’s head-down stubbornness and wry wit.
There’s little not to like about the Hawkings, no matter how much glossy twaddle Marsh slaps on, from the star-gazing to the faux-home-movie footage and twinkly piano on the soundtrack. Jones can always be counted on to play the smiling-through-her-pain wife or girlfriend with spunk and vigor. For his part, the sly Redmayne plays Stephen as though his life depended on it. His sidling manner and crooked smile say books’ worth about Stephen’s generally comedy-based approach to life. Redmayne also adeptly works in many of the little deflecting tricks he’s developed to handle the ways in which his body has started to betray him. It’s something of a tribute to Marsh — whose skills are generally far better used in his documentaries like Man on Wire than in undistinguished narrative work — that he doesn’t betray the onset of Stephen’s disease in one melodramatic-cough-to-signal-he’s-dying moment. Rather, when Stephen is given the diagnosis at the age of 21 of a progressive neurological disease and is given just two years to live, it’s a genuinely shattering moment.
When it comes to dealing with the grotty physical and searing psychological realities of Stephen’s ever-progressing handicap, there is little that The Theory of Everything does wrong. There is a generous vision of his illness operating behind the camera, and it almost never cheapens the drama of his disease, unless it’s to give Stephen a crack at his own expense. The problem here is that most of what happens in Anthony McCarten’s screenplay has little to do with what Hawking is actually known for. There are some token references to the revolutionary nature of his work on the nature of time and his quest to find “the one single elegant equation to explain everything” and the occasional awed look from a colleague or applause from an appreciative audience. The story is focused almost entirely instead on the domestic arena, particularly the introduction of handsome chorister Jonathan (Charlie Cox) to make eyes at the overwhelmed Jane.
Possibly there was no way to make this film. Indeed, how exactly would one get inside Stephen’s head without resorting to gimmickry of the worst kind? But, left on the outside as we are, it is very difficult to get a handle on just how world-changing Hawking’s views were and are. The film never gets comfortable enough with its own subject matter. It’s as though the filmmakers listened to the blonde who pops into the Cambridge party with Jane early in the film, takes a scan of the room and sighs, “Oh dear, scientists.”