The biopic is a strange genre: it has been around since the early days of cinema, and has been popular ever since. With the exception of a few great films, it has also staunchly refused to evolve. Perhaps because of its popularity with the Oscars, it may not be in the biopic's best interest to evolve, either. In the last ten years, we have seen films like Ray and Walk the Line receive near-unanimous praise, despite their rigid adherence to the greatest-hits approach to storytelling. People are fascinated by the famous and infamous, and will likely never tire of watching them. This can also explain why actors who portray these people consistently receive awards for their performances.
Those performances can be precise imitations (Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles) or complete embodiments (Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln). James Marsh's The Theory of Everything possesses two of the latter kind in the form of Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking and Felicity Jones as his erstwhile wife, Jane. These two actors carry the weight of the film almost entirely on their shoulders, elevating it slightly above its status as a by-the-numbers account of memorable moments in the Hawkings' lives. Bolstered by immersive production design, makeup, and costume design, the actors nail the look and feel of the film's events, and they age convincingly in front of our eyes through their physicality and appearance.
On a script and direction level, the movie leaves plenty to be desired. The screenplay was written by Anthony McCarten, and presents the initial courtship at Cambridge between Stephen and Jane, the development of their family as Stephen's body decays due to ALS, and their eventual separation once they each encounter people better suited for them. The film is based on Jane's memoir, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, and as such provides almost equal screen time to each member of the couple. The actors give their all to clue us into their internal lives, but the script is so insistent on moving onto the next pivotal event that we have little time to engage with them psychologically.
The director, Marsh, has won an Oscar for his thrilling 2008 documentary about Philippe Petit, Man on Wire. This is not his first feature, but he seems no less adept at engaging his audience emotionally. His documentary succeeded due to the fact that it felt like a heist film, with meticulous attention to the planning and execution of Petit's daring artistic stunt. Here, we get plenty of sun-dappled moments between Stephen and Jane, but it all proceeds with such stuffy taste and stateliness that it loses verisimilitude and weight. The film's most successful moments emphasize the despair Stephen feels trapped in his body, but these are few and far between. The direction is otherwise workmanlike and functional, relying chiefly on the actors to do all the heavy lifting.
And what lifting there is. Redmayne delivers a performance comparable to that of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot (which also won an Oscar) in terms of physical rigor and commitment. He is convincing throughout all the periods of Stephen's life, as a rakish, cocky college student to a bitter, beaten down old man. Jones has the arguably more challenging role of distracting our attention from Redmayne's demanding performance, and she accomplishes the task with aplomb. Despite her undeniable movie star looks, Jones enables us to look past that to the desperately suffering woman behind the celebrated man. When Jane sways in her loyalty to Stephen, we sympathize with her transgression because of Jones. She turns what could have been another in a long list of thankless supporting female performances in biopics to something truly memorable.
On paper, a filmic life of Stephen Hawking seemed ripe for the making. Unfortunately, the wonderful talent in front of the camera can't undo the bland work behind it.