Here’s a perplexing equation: nearly every individual element of The Theory of Everything that might be singled out for analysis is admirable, at least to a degree, and yet the long string of addition doesn’t lead to particularly satisfying film. In depicting the life and career of Stephen Hawking, the film boasts consistently artful visuals constructed by director James Marsh, sterling lead performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, and a script by Anthony McCarten that may adhere to familiar biopic beats but also allows for atypical layers of complexity, especially in its depiction of the challenges inherent to any marriage. It’s shot beautifully by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, who bathes key scenes in colored lighting washes that recall some of the more interesting work by Roger Deakins in recent years, and the whole thing is imbued with a level of seriousness that is plainspoken enough to keep the film from veering into the numbing pretension. The film isn’t dull. It isn’t particularly engaging, either.
There are creative struggles that can be identified. The film suffers inability to dramatize Hawking’s scientific accomplishments in a way that feels authentic. The few scenes that show Hawking interacting in his field smack with such phoniness that the film would have better off with characters referring obliquely to accomplishments offscreen, as in the only effective moment in which his wife (Jones) explains the basics of his work using vegetables speared from her dinner plate. And the narrative is occasionally laid out like a series of paving stones, always moving forward but with clear gaps instead of a smooth pathway. That can be attributed to a somewhat regimented screenplay, but it’s exactly the sort of issue that a director is supposed to correct for, gently reshaping the work until it seems to proceed naturally instead of with a clear adherence to the established rigors of cinematic storytelling. While Marsh has experience with fiction films, his strongest efforts have come with documentaries, including one that won him an Oscar. It suggests that he might be better off with the flint-spark of unpredictability that is necessarily connected to real-life subjects. Given a clearly delineated start-to-finish progression, he adheres to it too closely.
Even as I type them out, those issues don’t seem like quite enough to diminish the film to the middling position in which it resides. These feel like minor concerns in a nicely polished work. And yet there’s a touch of soullessness to The Theory of Everything. It’s a cloudy snapshot rather than a vivid portrait. That doesn’t diminish the pleasure in watching Redmayne impressively capture the crumpled physicality of Hawking and, more importantly, his petulance and wry humor. Similarly, there are nuances worth studying as Jones gently conveys the ways in which cheery perseverance can flag across a difficult life. If the film around them doesn’t fully cohere, maybe that can just be chalked up to the rough alchemy of filmmaking. It’s not only in the punishing realms of science that satisfying solutions can be painfully elusive.