Dr. Stephen Hawking has such pronounced and easily identified public persona that is difficult to imagine his personal life, or even more so, to a time when he was not confined to a wheelchair due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Attempting to show the human side of the brilliant mind is The Theory of Everything, a new film about Hawking’s life, disease, and awe-inspiring intellectual and personal perseverance over his disease. It is this focus on the personal that makes this film interesting. Unfortunately, the film far too often regurgitates customary biopic structure and tropes to really make it unique or involving.
Led by two phenomenal performances, The Theory of Everything is based largely on the memoir of Hawking’s longtime first wife, Jane Hawking. With an unavoidably showy, but astoundingly inhabiting performance from Eddie Redmayne, as well as a delicate, but fiercely strong and more subtle turn from Felicity Jones as Jane, the film is clearly built from the performances up.
Redmayne is more than deserving of the heaps of praise being thrown upon him for this career-making role. In what is essentially three performances, the up-and-coming British actor portrays Hawking during three stages of his life: first, as an awkward, but charming college student, then, as an emerging genius tempered by his rapidly deteriorating condition, and finally, as the near immobile, but amazingly sharp-minded intellectual he is recognized as today. Redmayne’s performance is equally astounding and inspiring, and is really only eclipsed by Hawking’s real life story.
By Redmayne’s side from start to finish is Felicity Jones. At first quiet and timid, and perhaps a bit mousey, Jones, as Jane Hawking, comes to life like a firework with a mixture of tenacity and emotion. She quickly entrances Hawking, and by extension, the audience as well. It surely took a special woman to ensnare a mind like her husband and to stay with him despite everything, just as it took a special actress to match Redmayne in a film like this.
Though powered by these two deservedly award-likely performances, The Theory of Everything is still, rather unfortunately, a fairly standard biopic. For a story about a man with such vivid mind, the film could have been more cerebral and thought-provoking, or at least imaginative stylistically. Director James Marsh flashes some interesting camera angles and movements, he never fully commits to a unique experience and the film ultimately falls flat.
Ultimately, there is not much to set Theory of Everything apart from similar films, like A Beautiful Mind or this year’s The Imitation Game – both of which relied much more successfully on tangible tension to thrust the story forward. The Theory of Everything never really finds its footing as an examination of marriage or an uplifting drama. In the end, the film itself cannot live it up to its lead performances.
* * * out of 5 stars
The Theory of Everything opens in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, November 25.
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