‘The Theory of Everything’ or The Theory of Biopics and why they’re all the same
The Theory of Everything
Written by Anthony McCarten
Directed by James Marsh
As a humble film critic, one can’t pretend to guess at the theory of everything in respect to the physical forces of the Universe. However, there may be a theory of everything concerning biopics, since, as The Theory of Everything demonstrates, they can’t help but all seem exactly the same. Surely, the uniform execution of tropes in storytelling, production, and acting across disparate movies point to the presence of some law underlying reality. Either that or biopics just make people really, really lazy.
The Theory of Everything follows the life of renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), from the time he meets his wife Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) while at Cambridge in the ’60s to their divorce in the mid-’90s (not that anyone unfamiliar with Hawking would be sure of the timeframe, since the movie does a horrible job of making it clear just when things are happening). Young Stephen is socially awkward in the way that most movie geniuses are, but Jane sees through that to the sweet person within in the way that most movie genius wives do. Not long after they meet, Stephen’s ALS sets on in full, but the pair power through it, and continue to do so over the years, even as his physical abilities degrade. Stephen is an agnostic/atheist and Jane is a Christian, but they make it work through The Power of Love and the tried-and-true movie method of characters not actually engaging with faith matters.
For a long time, fiction films have had trouble conveying what makes brilliant people, well, brilliant. The demands of traditional storytelling and the underestimation of the average audience member’s intelligence means that filmmakers are reluctant to spend too much time elucidating big ideas, especially when they have to do with science or math. The Theory of Everything is no different, simplifying the ideas that made Hawking famous to an embarrassing degree. In the most cringe-worthy scene, a group of scientists ebulliently describe the ideas of the “Big Bang” and “Big Crunch” by actually yelling “BANG” and “CRUNCH” while performing associated hand gestures. The movie is all too eager to skip this “boring” stuff for the allegedly more interesting domestic drama at hand.
The film is based not on any of Hawking’s work, but rather on Jane Wilde’s memoir of their time together. For this reason, and with the help of Felicity Jones’ restrained but emotional performance, Jane gets more to do here than biopic wives traditionally do. It’s the only biopic I can think of, in fact, where the wife gets a substantial number of scenes of her own, wholly separate from the presence of the husband. The movie’s most laudable aspect is how it seeks to convey what it’s like to live in support of someone with a lot of care needs, while also trying to have a life of one’s own. Fascinatingly, the choice of source material also means that the film isn’t afraid to make Hawking look like a total dick at times, and not a charming dick of the sort we usually see in biopics, but an outright “you asshole” dick.
Redmayne has been handed the sort of role that actors lust for in biopics, since it comes loaded with unusual physical demands that require him to work outside the normal realm of acting while also diving into the fake disability stuff that the Oscar voters will devour. As the plot unfolds and Hawking is able to move less and less, Redmayne has to restrain himself more and more. He does a good job of approximating the man’s facial behavior, and gives the sense that, while he can’t move, there’s a vast interior to him. But the movie is far less successful at making the viewer feel what it’s like to be Hawking. Save one poignant scene where he imagines being able to get up and walk, there’s nothing that effectively communicates his confinement. We know film can do this — remember The Diving Bell and the Butterfly?
The Theory of Everything is a dumb movie about smart people, anchored in mediocrity away from shoddiness by some nice performances. It is, in other words, a standard biopic, through and through.