What is it like to be Stephen Hawking? How must it feel to be one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, yet be trapped in a body afflicted by motor neuron disease, leaving him almost completely paralyzed and unable to speak?
The Theory of Everything won’t necessarily convey that experience to those who watch it. Director James Marsh has a broader, more accessible story in mind.
Above all, this is a film about Hawking’s relationship with his wife, Jane, and the role she played in supporting her husband and their family as his body failed him. (That probably shouldn’t be a surprise since the script is based on her memoir, Traveling to Infinity.) It’s an inspiring love story, one that will appeal to many, though the marriage does take some interesting turns later in their lives.
Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking is certain to draw a great deal of praise, and deservedly so. His transformation from dashing British gentleman — through make-up and physical performance — to geeky, and eventually incapacitated, scientist is an impressive one. Though Redmayne obviously has to depict physical struggles, it never feels like he’s doing an impersonation of Hawking. Nor do Redmayne or Marsh stage anything deliberately showy, that may as well have the words “For Your Oscar Consideration” at the bottom of the screen.
Redmayne is sure to get most of the attention from those who see The Theory of Everything, and will likely draw plenty of awards consideration, but his co-star is actually more impressive. Jones is excellent as Jane Hawking. This is a woman determined to be with a man she loved, who found the strength to endure a situation many might have run away from, despite the cost that exacts on her own dreams and ambitions.
I haven’t seen much of Felicity Jones’ work, outside of her brief and baffling appearance in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, so maybe I’m saying what many others already know. I would argue that Jones carries this movie, and I’m not sure that another actress would prove as capable with that responsibility.
As with Redmayne, Jones isn’t given that one showy, dramatic scene where she falls apart and her emotional struggle becomes completely obvious. Yes, we see Jane take quiet moments in which she gathers herself and finds strength. But there’s nothing like her drying dishes, dropping a glass to the floor and then slumping down, crying among the broken shards. Even when she develops conflicting feelings about her life due to the circumstances of Hawking’s care, we’re not hit over the head with what her character is going through.
The timing of The Theory of Everything‘s release is perfect, because it’s the sort of movie that a family can watch together during the holidays. It doesn’t seek to challenge its viewers, and seems to gloss over what must have been some difficult times, particularly in the Hawkings’ relationship. That may leave some people to feel that the movie is perhaps too light, choosing to avoid some hard truths in favor of pleasing the crowd.
Presumably, that crowd will include those who vote for best-of-year movie awards, and The Theory of Everything is sure to garner plenty of consideration as the calendar moves towards the Academy Awards. At times, it feels like a film checking off all the boxes to get that Best Picture nomination and win the big prize.
Yet the movie never feels as if it’s being deliberately manipulative to draw sympathy or emphasize a point. Hawking’s story is one well worth telling and was probably long overdue for a big-screen biopic. Fortunately, Marsh shows a classy touch in bringing that story to a large audience.