Review: The Theory of Everything

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The Theory of Everything

There is surprisingly little science in The Theory of Everything, a film about famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking's personal life. There is, however, a lot of kissing.

Well, maybe not that much kissing -- at least compared to other romantic films -- but the movie contains far more romance than science. Want to learn about Hawking's groundbreaking work? Skip the deceptively titled The Theory of Everything, which focuses on Hawking's relationship with his first wife, Jane Hawking, and barely touches on his brilliant scientific ideas.

Based on Jane Hawking's memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, The Theory of Everything opens as grad students Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones) begin dating at the University of Cambridge in 1963. All is well with their courtship at first. But within a few months, Stephen is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), a progressive disorder that causes motor neuron degeneration and muscle weakness and atrophy.

Given a life expectancy of two years, Stephen becomes depressed and encourages Jane to leave him, seeing little point in carrying on their relationship or his studies. Jane is realistic about Stephen's fate, but she vows to stay with him, hoping to help him make the most of the time he has left -- and inspire him to pursue his then-radical theories about the origins of the universe.

As we all know, Stephen lives a miraculously long time (he's now 72). The Theory of Everything follows the couple for decades, from their wedding in 1965 and the births of their three children to the triumphs of Steven's career and the tragedy of his increasingly severe health problems. He carries on despite his illness; sadly, his marriage to Jane does not. It ends in 1990, succumbing to the pressures of his worsening health and increasing fame. (I'm not spoiling anything by mentioning the divorce. The Theory of Everything is about the couple's romantic journey together, not their unromantic destination.)

Again, The Theory of Everything mentions Stephen's scientific breakthroughs only in passing; it's a film for romantics, not physics nerds. Which would be well and good if The Theory of Everything were a great romance -- but it isn't. It wraps the Hawkings' relationship in gauzy, weepy, sometimes painfully melodramatic clichés, reducing a complex love affair to a series of episodic, standard-issue scenes of romantic ecstasy and heartbreak.

Among The Theory of Everything's many problems is that it tries to cover too much ground. It spends a lot of time on Stephen and Jane's courtship and the early years of their marriage, then races through more than two decades, shortchanging many important life events that affect the couple's relationship. The film should linger on these events long enough to give them an emotional punch; instead, it hurries through them with perfunctory dialogue that sounds hollow, not heartfelt.

The film shortchanges other aspects of the Hawkings' lives also. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten's script plays fast and loose with facts and timelines; a few key scenes are completely fictional (and not entirely believable), most likely to meet the target audience's expectations of fairytale romance and tearjerking drama. And because the story pays so little attention to Stephen's career, it also fails to capture the fundamentally important connections between his razor-sharp mind, his contributions to science and his relationship with Jane, who loved both her husband and his work. The Theory of Everything could have been an intriguing look at the interplay between the rationality of science and the irrationality of love; instead, it's just a superficial story about overcoming adversity.

Flawed as The Theory of Everything is, it does offer one of this year's best and most celebrated performances: Redmayne's knockout turn as Stephen, a tour de force that no doubt will earn the young actor an Oscar nod. From his facial expressions and twisted body to his famous sense of humor, Redmayne's take on the revered physicist is uncannily real. Redmayne inhabits his character with great physicality and nuance, elevating the role far above the rest of the film. Long after forgetting The Theory of Everything, we'll remember Redmayne's sympathetic and surprisingly funny performance.

Jones is also memorable as Jane, making the most of a predictably underwritten character. (Sigh. And sigh again. When will the movie industry learn that women have three dimensions? And not just physically!) The real Jane Hawking has had an impressive academic and literary career, but The Theory of Everything tells us almost nothing about it. While the script doesn't do Jane justice, at least Jones does all she can to flesh her out and generate romantic chemistry; she does admirably well, given the film's blatant sentimentality and often ham-handed dialogue.

But aside from the two leads' noble efforts, there is little to recommend The Theory of Everything. It's a glossy, stylish and pretty film that may satisfy fans of unabashedly old-fashioned romantic dramas, but its story is safe and unchallenging. The Hawkings -- whose lives together were anything but safe and unchallenging -- deserve better.