Drenched in sunlight and luminously out of focus, the opening sequence of James Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything” certifies one thing right off the bat: it’s going to look very, very pretty. Not exactly the first quality that comes to mind for a Stephen Hawking biopic, but we were most enamored and taken aback by Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography. Motion pictures can’t just get away with praise by looking handsome, of course, so it’s a good thing ‘Theory’ solves a few more equations quite successfully. Bordering on the bland, stepping into Hallmark territory on a number of occasions, this love-filled biopic still managed to melt most of our reservations away.
Based on Jane Hawking’s book “Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen,” fans of quantum mechanics should prepare for a story about commitment and love above everything that made Professor Hawking into one of the most brilliant scientists of the 20th century. The film kicks off in 1963, Cambridge, where a young Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) is still in his pre-PhD phase. He goes to a party with a friend and first lays eyes on Jane (Felicity Jones,) who returns his gaze. The future couple’s profound ideological difference is established instantaneously: he’s studying science and wishes to explain the workings of the universe, and she’s studying Medieval poetry and is a devoted churchgoer. They say opposites attract, and there’s no second-guessing the attraction that sparkles between the two, as they spend the entire night talking and he walks away with her phone number. The two continue to see each other, connecting through one another’s dramatically opposed views of life: she recites William Blake, he explains the physics behind UV light, and they fall deeply in love with each other. Then tragedy ensues. After a few ominous signs of muscle failure, Stephen collapses one day and is rushed to the hospital. A few tests later, he learns of his motor-neuron disease and is told he’s got two years left to live.
Avoiding Jane at all costs, Stephen turns to despair, but she affirms that she will stick by him no matter what. Jane and Stephen get married and begin a family. His Lou Gehrig’s disease progresses, his speech deteriorates, but his Black Hole thesis stipulating the origin of time and the universe earns him his doctorate, and his work becomes well known. As time passes, the Hawking household continues to grow, and Jane starts to feel pressure.
Marsh comes into this project with a great track record in bold documentary filmmaking (“Man on Wire” and “Project Nim,”) so it’s disappointing that ‘Theory’ is so standard. In terms of structure, pace, and development, the film hews to familiar ebbs and flows of storytelling convention. But even the most cynical and hard-to-please viewers will be hard-pressed to deny some of the film’s finer qualities. We’re already mentioned Delhomme’s lighting, but it bears repeating ad infinitum. The interior shots of the Hawking household, the colorful array of fireworks on a starry night, the light show in Bordeaux, the surgical wintriness of the hospitals: Delhomme gives his all in every shot.
Redmayne and Jones’ performances soar. While the former turns in a physically demanding performance, Jones has less to work with, which is in itself a weakness in Anthony McCarten’s screenplay. Despite this and some shoddy age make-up, she personifies her character through all her various stages with tenacious intensity. Most importantly, the chemistry between the two is indisputably explosive. In all eras of the characters’ lives, Redmayne and Jones imbue the screen with an elegance and a sophistication reflecting a timeless tale of love and deep friendship.
It should be stressed that “The Theory of Everything” will likely disappoint diehard fans of Hawking’s science. Pivotal moments of his career are not ignored, but they are contextualized around the personal hardships of his private life shouldered by an exceptionally courageous woman. And this film will by no means affirm that Marsh directs fiction better than he documents real life. The film is a boilerplate biopic, but with stunning cinematography and a couple of fierce performances, “The Theory of Everything” is nothing if not an accomplished and emotional work of cinema. [B]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.