If the very idea of acting exists as simply a way for one person to become another, then surely it must be true that the biopic genre holds the key to acting in its purest form. After all, the richest of characters are often the most real. It comes as no great surprise then that the biopic’s focus is usually trained solely on its lead, but is it always right to do so? Surely there must be more buried within the formula for a film’s success; something beyond the abilities of its performers alone? Oddly enough, according to Oscar-winning director James Marsh’s latest film The Theory of Everything there really isn’t, and more importantly it doesn’t matter.
Aptly titled for the never-ending quest for knowledge by its primary subject, The Theory of Everything chronicles the humour, hardships and all-round genius of world-renowned physicist Professor Stephen Hawking. Beginning first with his studies at Cambridge, Marsh’s film digs deep into Hawking’s history, charting his struggles with both academia and eventually, motor neurone disease (the disorder which would come to disable him), as tracked through his decade-spanning relationship with fellow graduate Jane Wilde.
Without dancing around the topic even slightly, this film is characterised by one thing and one thing only: Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of arguably one of the most famous and well-loved people on the planet. Get it right and the young actor is in awards territory. Get it wrong and no matter how great the script is, or how incredible the supporting cast are, there’s always going to be a gigantic, obtrusive, praise-sucking black hole at the centre of the picture. Luckily for audiences everywhere (not to mention Hawking himself), Redmayne doesn’t just “knock it out of the park”, he rockets it out of the stratosphere. His portrayal here is nothing short of exemplary; a beautifully layered combination of the sweet and the troubled. Even in spite of the fact that nearly half of his screen-time is almost bereft of dialogue, Redmayne masters the emotional beats like a true natural and never fails to be utterly convincing; any danger of him wandering over into Ben Stiller’s ‘Simple Jack’ territory is removed within seconds of seeing him don the famous wheelchair. Almost equally as impressive is Redmayne’s film-wife (very much his ‘other-half’) Felicity Jones, whose turn as Hawking’s first love Jane is subtly commanding, although clearly under-spent.
In fact, if The Theory of Everything is to run into any issues, it’s that its performers are simply too good, to the point where they quite literally begin to show-up the rest of the film. Anthony McCarten’s script covers an incredible amount of Hawking’s life, firing off year after year in bite-size chunks with ease and clarity, never once running into any pacing problems which is highly commendable. However, the ultimate result of McCarten adopting such a broad spectrum is that there’s simply not enough room to elaborate on anything in close enough detail. It’s true that the chances of effectively condensing the entirety of Hawking’s life into a two-hour film is exceedingly unlikely, and the romantic angle that Marsh leans towards pays off fantastically, but there are still very obvious holes left behind. The biggest of which is the ‘theory’ of the title – Hawking’s science is understandably watered-down, but at times this is almost done so to the point of insult; a little more detail and investment in what comes to define the professor’s life would be exceedingly useful here. It’s the equivalent of making a film about The Beatles, but without a soundtrack. However, ultimately this subtraction doesn’t prove to be to too damaging to the overall film, simply being filed under more of a “nice to have” than an “absolutely essential”.
Regardless of its (pretty much necessary) pratfalls, The Theory of Everything stands as an incredibly impressive and somewhat simple portrait of a complex man. Without Redmayne and Jones, Marsh would have but an empty shell, but with them, he’s on awards-worthy form once again.
The Theory of Everything (2014), directed by James Marsh, is released in UK cinemas on 1st January by Universal Pictures, Certificate 12A.