There’s a certain brand of biopic that is so in awe of its subject, so reverential and respectful, that it forgets it’s a movie. Instead, the end result feels more like the CliffsNotes of selected scenes from a heavily-edited biography, or maybe a Lifetime profile that somehow ended up in a theater by accident. And when the subject of that biopic is one of the most brilliant humans to ever live, whose personal life was as fascinating as his work, to glaze over any part (let alone all) of it is a huge disappointment. The Theory of Everything is that kind of disappointment.
It’s one thing to make a boring biopic about a boring person. But Stephen Hawking? He’s about as far from that descriptor as you can get. The movie begins when Stephen meets his first wife Jane. They’re both studying at Cambridge (him: cosmology, her: arts— each equally foreign to the other), and fall into an immediate, awkward love. The story is as much about their love as it is Hawking’s work, and unfortunately it glosses over both equally. We see scenes from their courtship and their marriage, but we never see growth or change, because for a movie about the science of time, it has no idea how to mark its passage. They meet, they love, they marry, they have one child, then two, all with little to link the events together. The same goes for Hawking’s work: he gets an idea, he writes a bit on a chalkboard, he receives praise. We only know these things were difficult and took time because in between presenting his research, sometimes a new baby will appear. The one thing the film does take its time with is Hawking’s illness. His physical deterioration at the hands of ALS is detailed and painful. It’s closer to what we would expect from James Marsh, whose other famous biopicumentary, Man on Wire, was expertly crafted and entirely gripping. This film, on the other hand, has no grip. The most (potentially) interesting part of the story comes late in the two lovers’ marriage when (and spoilers here for those who know nothing about Hawking’s personal life) they both begin to find their eyes wandering. In a relationship that they freely admit is anything but “normal,” it’s touching how simply and naturally, with a sort of unspoken implied permission, they adjust the boundaries of their marriage. But like every other subject brought up, just when they start to approach a deeper level, or a need to push the characters through a hardship, the film instead backs off and skips ahead a year or two. In this particular instance, that easy, lazy look at the couple’s needs and desires doesn’t do the characters any favors. Where Jane comes off looking saintly (which is not surprising, considering the movie was based on her memoir), Hawking, on the other hand, appears less like a man falling in love with a brilliant, adoring woman, and more like an ungrateful horndog who thinks nothing of running off with the first vicious trollop fangirl that hits on him.
For all its failings (and there are many), it would be criminal not to acknowledge the movie’s shining beacon of brilliance. And I can’t overstate this. Eddie Redmayne is unbelievably good. Felicity Jones is also fantastic as Jane, a tiny burst of saintly, tightly harnessed energy. But Redmayne… it’s crazy how good he is. He will do things to your heart and probably also your pants, and it’s no wonder to hear that his performance made Hawking himself cry. But he’s wasted here. This is a movie that wants to be everything; it wants to be about love and time and science and family and desire and illness and the power of the human mind and spirit and basically everything else any movie has ever been about, ever. And unless you’re Interstellar, that’s just too much for a movie to pull off.