Film review: The Theory of Everything 

click to enlarge TTOE_D04_01565_R_CROP  (L to R) Felicity Jones stars as Jane Wilde and Eddie Redmayne stars as Stephen Hawking in Academy Award winner James Marsh’s THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, a Focus Features release. - Photo Credit:  Liam Daniel / Focus Features - LIAM DANIEL
  • Liam Daniel
  • TTOE_D04_01565_R_CROP (L to R) Felicity Jones stars as Jane Wilde and Eddie Redmayne stars as Stephen Hawking in Academy Award winner James Marsh’s THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

The perils of overdramatization and cliché are so commonplace in biopics that the mere mention of these dangers is almost a cliché in itself. But despite some extraordinary acting, The Theory of Everything exemplifies this trend, reducing Stephen Hawking’s highly complex life to a series of emotional shills and dumbed-down platitudes.

Based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, the film follows the acclaimed physicist (Eddie Redmayne, Les Misérables) and his wife, Jane (Felicity Jones, The Invisible Woman), from their time together at Cambridge in the 1960s, when Stephen was diagnosed with motor neuron disease and given a life expectancy of two years. It’s a story right out of the Oscar playbook, if not a daytime soap opera, and it’s depicted in a way that oversimplifies and panders to those who are most easily coerced.

With its tawdry storybook romanticism, the first act is enough to make even the sappiest softies cringe. The film begins its gradual turn toward the morose when Stephen takes a tumble, the precursor to his diagnosis, and it’s from this moment onward that the performances of Redmayne and Jones begin to take hold. As weird as it is to say it, the more suffering the two endure, the better the film becomes.

Redmayne’s role required both physical and emotional precision, and through his bodily transformation, slurred speech and surprisingly subtle expressiveness, his portrayal of the renowned scientist is likely to earn a Best Actor nomination at February’s Academy Awards. The same could be said for Jones, who shines as Stephen’s struggling yet sympathetic caretaker.

Yet focusing on Stephen and Jane’s spiritual relationship is an auspiciously safe undertaking, and Anthony McCarten’s script and James Marsh’s direction neglect much of what made Stephen Hawking such a fascinating human to begin with: his science. Certain scenes depict him in pursuit of a single unifying equation, one to explain both the scope and origin of the universe. But curiously, the film focuses more on the metaphysical and religious undercurrents of Hawking’s work — something there wasn’t a whole lot of to begin with. The emphasis on this stale, banal dynamic inevitably feels clumsy, unnecessary and even a bit preachy.

That said, The Theory of Everything is not a bad movie. It is, by and large, an affecting and heartfelt character study that is sure to receive its fair share of admiration. But much like The King’s Speech and A Beautiful Mind before it, the film tries so hard to assuage the soul that it forgets to stimulate the brain. It’s precisely the type of mindless exercise that Hawking himself would denounce, one which devalues one of the greatest thinkers of our time in the form of a low-hanging, cliché-addled fruit.

Print headline: Good in Theory.  The Theory of Everything is an overly simplistic melodrama depicting the struggles of physicist Stephen Hawking.

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