Eddie Redmayne becomes Stephen Hawking in a rare and exciting way in The Theory of Everything, giving a performance that extends far beyond simply mimicking Hawking’s look. He’s a young actor — currently 33 — but already has a sizable body of film work under his belt, in addition to a Tony Award and an Olivier Award for his work in the play Red alongside Alfred Molina. In short: it’s a good time to be Eddie Redmayne. His success in this role will doubtless launch him onto the international stage, and judging by his next role (a part in Jupiter Ascending, his first big-budget action film) he’s already there.
And yet it’s all he and co-star Felicity Jones can do to drag The Theory of Everything out of the tired, trodden mud in which the film itself is set. To claim outright that a certain biographical film is “boring” isn’t necessarily the equivalent of deeming the life of the subject to be similarly boring, but it’s close enough to warrant a perfunctory disclaimer: Hawking had a life that was anything but boring. Sure, everyone knows that math and science themselves are really incredibly boring — certainly no one is denying that. But Theory can’t even fall back on that, because there’s surprisingly little math or science in the film.
Focusing on Hawking’s personal life would seem the more interesting route. Hawking’s hunt for the “single equation” that explains the entire universe intrigues his future wife, or it seems to, and the fact that they have little in common in the fields of math or science is irrelevant. They fit. She’s excited by his grand ideas about the universe, and he’s excited that she’s in the universe. That’s driven into our heads (the tagline for the film is His mind changed our world — Her love changed his) and it’s not done with a very subtle touch. It’s not so heavy-handed to be irredeemably cringeworthy, but you do end up wincing and praying that no one looks Hawking in the eye to tell him “the single equation that explains the universe is love“. Cue Oscar-winning string section.
It’s in the pacing of The Theory of Everything that the story of the Hawkings tends to seem awkwardly rushed in one scene and sloggingly tidal in the next, adding to the clunkiness of the overall film. Stephen and Jane meet and fall in love in the first three or four minutes; at the same time, the sense that they understand each other is never really there until the end of the film (maybe they didn’t). Jane meets a young man at choir practice, and they have a brief conversation and exchange a few smiles; five minutes later, he’s assisting Stephen in the bathroom. These jumps and gaps don’t seem intentional, and while they don’t necessarily make the movie hard to follow, they do make the movie hard to get into.
Redmayne and Jones do their best with some shaky material, and the former especially puts in what is likely the definitive portrayal of Stephen Hawking — and there have been quite a few. After watching The Imitation Game and being overall impressed by Benedict Cumberbatch, I was pleased to then find this:
That’s Cumberbatch as Hawking ten years ago. Looks a bit more like Napoleon Dynamite, doesn’t he? Redmayne doesn’t ever leave room for the slightest consideration that he’s an actor playing Stephen Hawking — he just is Stephen Hawking. He’s superb, and it’s worth seeing Theory just for him. His performance aside, there’s very little that’s surprising or exciting in the film.
Lastly, a shoutout to David Thewlis appearing as a science professor and immediately reminding pretty much everyone that he played Professor Lupin in Harry Potter. Had he transformed into a werewolf mid-physics lecture, The Theory of Everything would have been much more exciting.