Stephen Hawking Biopic Takes Non-conventional Route

Photo Courtesy of Cranberries, Flickr Creative Commons

There are generally two ways to make a biopic. The first is the more common practice of the two, making a this-famous-guy-wasn't-the-sunshine-and-rainbows-he-presented-himself-to-be kind of picture (“Jobs,” “Hitchcock,” “The Iron Lady”). The second kind is for the most part only interested in telling the story of "how it happened," making a praise piece for its subject, casting them as a hero in the face of adversity or the principal character in an admittedly remarkable story (“42,” “Lincoln,” “The King's Speech.”) Neither of these methods make bad movies necessarily, nor unfaithful tellings of another person's story, but something is lost when a movie tries to have an agenda in its storytelling rather than focus on making a fluid, entertaining experience.

“The Theory of Everything” appears to forsake both of these tactics. Director James Marsh has no interest in telling a depressing story of Dr. Stephen Hawking’s diagnosis and total paralysis, or a 123-minute display of what a genius he is. “The Theory of Everything” instead takes the much-appreciated route of not making a cut and dry biopic at all. Similar to “The Social Network,” the Stephen Hawking picture makes a point of telling a story within a person’s life rather than the story being the person’s life itself.

“The Theory of Everything” is as much about Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) as it is about his first wife, Jane (Felicity Jones). With an almost groan-inducing cliché of an opening, the film begins with the couple’s first meeting, and goes through their decades-long life together. It’s after about the film’s first 40 minutes that it becomes apparent that this is not a biography of Stephen Hawking, but a love story between him and Jane.

As obvious as it was from the first trailer, Redmayne’s performance is incredible. The 32-year-old captures Hawking in a perfectly sympathetic way. It’s as easy to believe his obvious genius and debilitating disease as it is to see his love for his wife and heartbreaking display as he comes to terms with his diagnosis. Redmayne's sure to be on the short list for an Academy Award, and could very well win come February.

However, Jones is surprisingly nothing to scoff at, either. As Stephen’s disease gets worse, Jane quickly becomes not only his primary caregiver, but also the film’s new protagonist. It’s not just about Stephen, but also how his life affected hers. It’s not easy to go from supporting to leading character in the same movie, even less so to follow a performance as visceral as Redmayne’s. But Jones is more than up to the task, and the perspective shifts throughout the movie are seamless. In some ways she’s even more compassionate than Stephen, especially toward the tragic finale.

Unfortunately, the pacing does suffer when it comes to the more mundane aspects of Hawking’s extraordinary life, and it just gets disappointingly clichéd around the middle with Charlie Cox’s character, Jonathan. I cannot speak for the biographical accuracy, but it does seem to be the weaker aspect of the movie. It’s also home to some uninspired cinematography that does not effectively capture the pivotal points of Stephen’s life as much as Marsh would probably have liked. None of this, however, makes the whole any less beautiful or enjoyable for the audience.

While Redmayne and Jones take up a vast majority of the two hours of screen time, the supporting cast, including David Thewlis of “Game of Thrones,” Harry Lloyd and more are welcome additions as Stephen’s colleagues and friends, keep the story upbeat and fun. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is also every bit as beautiful as the story. While it’s not the best movie of the year, “The Theory of Everything” is simultaneously one of the better made and more entertaining pieces we will see this year.