The Theory of Everything (2014) – Review

The Theory of Everything

Directed by James Marsh, UK, 2014

“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”

Stephen Hawking, 2004

As any extraordinary person, Stephen Hawking is many things.  He is one of the most important scientists of the twentieth century.  He the lighthearted ambassador of the scientific community.  He is an inspirational figure for anyone facing a challenge in their lives.

Any film about Hawking’s life has an added degree of difficulty.  First, Dr. Hawking is still with us, so any film about his life has to receive his approval.  Second, he’s been living with a rare, slow progressing form of ALS for over fifty years.  Any film about his life has to convincingly show the progression of his illness and his successes in overcoming its limitations.  Since movies aren’t shot chronologically, an actor has to be able to switch back and forth between different stages of Hawking’s life on an almost daily basis.  Finally, he’s as universally admired as any public figure can possibly be – so any weakness in the performance would be heavily criticized.

Fortunately, Eddie Redmayne is up to the challenge.  He presents the pre-illness Hawking as an active, charming, slightly awkward college student at the beginning of the film – and that’s the easy part.  As Hawking’s disease progresses in the story, Redmayne rises to the challenge of imitating Hawking’s mannerisms and expressiveness.  What results is a convincing portrait of a man that is honest and connects with the audience at a level equal to that of the real Hawking.

Felicity Jones also has a challenging role to play as Hawking’s first wife and now close friend Jane Wilde Hawking.  Hers is a more traditional role, but since Wilde Hawking wrote the source material for the movie, it also has a high degree of difficulty.  It would be easy for any actor to lean on the source material and go through the motions, but Jones goes a step beyond that, and like Redmayne, does a great job connecting with the audience.

The two lead performers carry this film, which is otherwise a rather conventional biopic.  It doesn’t challenge the traditional boundaries of storytelling in the genre, but it doesn’t need to be particularly innovative to tell its story.  Overall, it’s an interesting and thorough look at the life of an extraordinary man, and that’s all it needs to be.

You might like the Theory of Everything if: You are interested in learning more about the life of Stephen Hawking and appreciate well-crafted performances.

You might not like the Theory of Everything if: Traditional biopics put you to sleep.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe