Well-acted and often moving, Theory of Everything is ultimately an insightful love story that just happens to be about Stephen Hawking.
The Theory of Everything picks up with famous physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) as a young man, pursuing his doctorate at the University of Cambridge in the early 1960s. There, he encounters Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a literature student and kindred spirit - even though they have differing world perspectives of faith and science - with whom Stephen is quick to begin a romantic relationship.
Thereafter, Stephen is diagnosed with a motor neuron disease and is only expected to live for two more years. Rather than separating herself from Stephen, Jane marries him and the pair begin a family. As the years go by, Stephen continues to break new ground in the fields of theoretical physics and cosmology, even as he loses more and more of his basic physical abilities (yet his mind and personality remain as defined as ever). Meanwhile, Jane pushes herself to care for not just her husband and children, but also herself - quietly facing the huge challenges that come with her life.
Theory of Everything is based on the non-fiction book "Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen", authored by the real Jane Wilde. As such, the film's narrative focuses in no small amount on Jane and Stephen's relationship - much more than, say, Stephen's academic accomplishments. The adapted screenplay by Anthony McCarten (Death of a Superhero) tends to be on the nose when it's playing out as a docudrama about Hawking's insights and studies in the areas of black holes, etc.; those tend to be the same parts that feel the most "Oscar bait-y" as well.
... Fortunately, those segments make up a small percentage of Theory of Everything; most of the film unfolds as an interesting, moving, and thematically-rich drama that examines love and human relationships, in their many forms (emotional, familial, platonic, etc.). McCarten's script boils down Wilde's source material into a flowing cinematic narrative that paints complicated portraits of both Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde; their strengths and flaws as human beings are very much on display. In the end, Theory of Everything provides a thoughtful meditation on life, the universe, and everything in between, by highlighting complex human drama over big scientific ideas. (The film's complimentary to Interstellar, in that respect - but that's a whole other discussion...).
Oscar-winning filmmaker James Marsh has experience when it comes to making both documentaries (Man on Wire, Project Nim) and narrative features (The King, Shadow Dancer), and he uses elements of both fields to positive effect with his direction on Theory of Everything. Marsh and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (A Most Wanted Man) filmed certain sequences in the style of old-fashioned home recordings, while others are given a more traditional and polished cinematic look, complete with stylistic flourishes (impressionist lighting, symbolic camera angles) that impress without distracting from the movie's central performances and story. The end result is a movie where the visual design supports the subject matter, rather than overshadowimg it.
Eddie Redmayne has gotten (and will surely keep getting) attention for the physical transformation of his performance as Stephen Hawking, but what really makes his performance so compelling is how the actor expresses Stephen's personality (his wit, his aloofness, his stubbornness) so effectively, regardless of the physical state of the character. Equally strong, though, is Felicity Jones playing Jane Wilde. Whereas Stephen's struggles and complications are easier to comprehend due to his condition, Jones is able to communicate a multitude of conflicted thoughts and feelings with even the simplest of gestures or expressions. For sure, it's the stars of Theory of Everything that truly elevate the film into something special.
Next to Redmayne and Jones' work in Theory of Everything, Charlie Cox (Boardwalk Empire) is worth highlighting for his turn as Jonathan Jones, a widower who forms a relationship with both Stephen and Jane. He serves an important purpose in advancing the plot, but Jones' scenes make an impact thanks to Cox's understated and sincere performance. The film's supporting cast also includes a number of reputable character actors - David Thewlis (Harry Potter), Emily Watson (The Book Thief), Simon McBurney (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and Maxine Peake (Run & Jump) among them - and all do fine work, even while being used in a very limited capacity.
Well-acted and often moving, Theory of Everything is ultimately an insightful love story that just happens to be about Stephen Hawking. Its biopic elements are fairly conventional - but in large part the film uses Hawking's life and his experiences as a springboard to examine very universal issues, rather than focus on key moments in his and Jane's lives. Because of that, it's easier to imagine this biographical picture being remembered even after the current buzz about its awards season prospects has dissipated. And that makes The Theory of Everything all the more worthy of a recommendation.
The Theory of Everything is now playing in U.S. theaters nation-wide. It is 123 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material.