The Theory of Everything review

The Theory of Everything is a formulaic biopic that frequently passes over the very things in its own story that might have made it worth our time, instead settling for reliable tropes and convenient, simplistic plot beats.

Despite what you may have heard, this is not a story that centres on Stephen Hawking. The film was adapted by screenwriter Anthony McCarten from Jane Wilde Hawking‘s autobiography, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. Felicity Jones, who plays Jane, takes the spotlight alongside Eddie Redmayne, who is rather convincing as Stephen.

The couple had three children together before separating in 1990 and divorcing in 1995. This film is the story of that relationship, and we are offered more insight into Jane’s experiences and inner life. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the story being tipped in favour of Jane, but it does seem that the film’s material on Stephen has been squeezed through Jane’s viewpoint in a way that has moderated and mediated it.

Sharp edges from the true story have been dulled, apparently in an attempt to make the movie version neater and less controversial. For instance, Jane and Stephen had very different attitudes towards religion, with Jane very much a believer. On screen this comes down to just a couple of polite exchanges about their perspectives, and while these arguments may recur, there’s no substance to them at all. Perhaps it’s genuinely the case that Jane and Stephen were so amicable in their arguments, but it would seem unlikely, and it hardly makes for compelling drama.

The only times that the director James Marsh and the screenplay take the material above above biopic banalities are when Jane struggles to support and care for Stephen. This places great strain upon her, and Jones gives a fine, if slightly too restrained performance, that ensures her situation is easy to identify with. We very quickly come to understand Jane’s resilience, and empathise with her struggle, its roots in decisions she made very early in life.

Still, even these sequences prove a dramatic dead end as we’re never in any doubt as to where the story is headed; not because it’s derived from true events, but because almost everything that occurs has been excessively signposted.

Marsh and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme‘s visual approach is to create syrupy imagery, bathing the screen in pastel washes and smearing the lens with vaseline. It’s occasionally rather pretty – Delhomme has shot some truly beautiful films, including the stunning The Scent of Green Papaya – but it’s not meaningful, beyond simply informing us that isn’t Stephen and Jane’s relationship was all rather nice and rosy in the early stages.

The dramatic low point occurs during a scene where Stephen has a near fatal seizure whilst watching Wagner. Coincidentally, Jane is absent at the time, and engaging in extra-marital affairs. The scene is highly strung and entirely unearned, and it reeks of Marsh and co. straining to add urgency to an otherwise dreary feature. But they fail, and so the film trudges on towards a tidy conclusion.

This isn’t the first time that the Hawkings’ lives have been dramatised and it almost certainly won’t be the last. Hopefully, somebody will one day improve on this dull, mannered affair.

The Theory of Everything is in UK and US cinemas now.