Review: The Theory of Everything (2015)
Director: James Marsh
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Based on “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen”, the memoir by Jane Wilde Hawking
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Maxine Peake, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, Guy Oliver-Watts, Abigail Cruttenden & Simon McBurney
Runtime: 123 min // Certificate: 12a
“There should be no boundaries to human endeavour. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.” – Stephen Hawking
There are but three certainties in life; death, taxes, and the annual pantomime of a dull as ditchwater biopic or adaptation (or worse still, both) being praised to the cosmos and beyond by the insufferable bores in charge of cinema’s most prestigious awards. This year, that film is James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, a mundane, dreary and embarrassingly uninspiring adaptation of Jane Hawking’s memoir about her marriage to one of the most celebrated men of the last century; the theoretical physicist and cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking.
A biopic that cannot help but conform to every cliché in the book, this is snapshot, photo-album cinema at its most unbearable and sanitised. Lumbering aimlessly from one meticulously crafted scene to the next with not a shred of naturalism or authenticity, Marsh’s film exudes the unmistakable stench of meddling by a focus group whose only concern is insincere crowd-pleasing. Even when it attempts to tackle the sensitive subject of Professor Hawking’s deteriorating health it does so with a cynical eye on what this impossible struggle can represent in terms of the narrative, such is the hollowness of the enterprise. What little plot or characterisation there is derives not from McCarten’s anodyne, by-the-numbers screenplay but from the recognisable traits and moments that we all associate with Hawking anyway, and though there is the occasional glimmer of unearned profundity, it’s smothered by the film’s chronic inability to elevate itself above the pedestrian archetypes of its genre.
The starkest example of the The Theory of Everything’s failings can be found, perhaps surprisingly, in Redmayne’s performance. Redmayne (Les Misérables) is a fine actor and he pours himself into his imitation of Hawking, for which he deserves some praise… though perhaps not the Golden Globe that he won just last night. Regrettably though, “imitation” is about as far as it goes. There’s no character here, just a decent impression of a well-known man. Redmayne tries so hard to get the nuances and ticks right that he forgets to inject any honesty into his performance. In fact, he’s quite frankly acted off the screen by Felicity Jones (Like Crazy), whose turn as Hawking’s long-suffering, guilt-ridden wife is by far the film’s greatest asset. In those few moments when the dumbed-down science and the laughable “eureka!” moments are dispensed with and the focus shifts to Jane’s insecurities and uncertainties, the film shows genuine promise. Alas, these moments are much too few and far between, and even then they’re belittled by a script that deals almost exclusively in platitudes and clichés.
For a film that eulogises on the majestic wonders of the universe so much, it’s amazing just how lifeless it all is. So content are Marsh (Man on Wire) and McCarten (Death of a Superhero) to dabble in little more than the most rudimentary exploration of this extraordinary man’s life that their film feels trite and soulless. In its quest to both celebrate the man and examine some of his more personal failings, the film tries its damndest to be all things to all people, yet as a result it categorically fails to even scratch the surface of what makes Hawking such a remarkable figure. It’s a tonally confused and poorly-targeted slog of a film that really does put the “ordinary” in extraordinary, and I must confess to being simply dumbfounded by the high praise it has received thus far.
Dull, unmemorable and hollow, The Theory of Everything ultimately amounts to nothing at all.