A Theory of Everything is marketed as a biopic of Stephen Hawking, but to appreciate this film it helps to understand that it’s based on the memoirs of his wife Jane Wilde Hawking. This explains the near equal focus the film gives to Jane: this is really a biopic of their relationship.
Viewed through this lens, the film is easier to judge on its own merits. It’s actually a romantic drama, all soft focus and acoustic score. On this front, it holds up rather well. Certainly the truth has been moulded into more comfortable dramatic convention, but it stays relatively faithful to the history of Stephen and Jane, as it charts their inevitable challenges in the face of Stephen’s progressive illness. It’s a touching, often beautifully bittersweet tale, and just about brave enough to be honest about both characters’ flaws. Biopics have a tendency to whitewash their protagonists into myth, but A Theory of Everything finds the humanity in Stephen Hawking, and consequently the film feels emotionally truthful, rather than mawkish and insincere.
Which is not to say that this film has no Oscar aspirations. It does, and in its weaker moments, it panders, with neat conclusions and trite monologues. Yet there is much here that does deserve attention, not least the acting of Felicity Jones and particularly Eddie Redmayne, who must surely be a shoe-in for Best Actor (Oscar loves a disability) and would thoroughly deserve it at that. The direction is worthy enough as well, commendably understated except for a few effective flourishes, edited together with some sumptuous cinematography and a pitch-perfect soundtrack. The only major issue is the writing.
Ah, the writing. This is a film about the world’s most famous physicist in which there is virtually no physics at all. It’s perfectly fine that it’s not the focus of the film, but the sheer black hole (sorry) of scientific acumen undermines the premise and shortchanges the audience. The Theory of Everything doesn’t allow its viewers the satisfaction of seeing why Stephen Hawking is so famous or the tremendous achievements he’s made, which severely weakens the thematic arc of triumph in the face of adversity.
With such little science, the film-makers could easily have hired some boffins to write PhD-realistic dialogue: there’s no need for the audience to understand the details. Instead, what little science the film allows is cringingly patronising, and shoehorned into an unnecessary, cliched and frankly bewildering narrative of Science Versus God. In fact, the script occasionally feels like the cliff notes version of a better script, and flounders when trying to explicate (within the first five minutes, Cambridge humanities student Jane asks what the word cosmology means).
And yet. A few weeks ago I criticised Interstellar for being too technical when it isn’t a science film, so I suppose it’s hypocritical of me to argue the opposite for The Theory of Everything, when we’ve established it isn’t a science film either. It’s a love story. It’s a love story that’s pensive about duty and romance and (non-religious) faith. In its best moments, it’s one of the best films of the year, a beguiling story of boy meets girl that lays bare the limitations and the possibilities of love.
Also, it plays Arrival of the Birds by The Cinematic Orchestra over its final scene, which automatically makes it amazing.