For what he's accomplished and the genius that he is, Stephen Hawking deserved better than a glossed over, surface level biopic that completely ignores his scientific achievements and the details of his work in favor of focusing on the relationship he had with his first wife- but what's worse, fails even to do that in any real depth or honesty.
The Theory of Everything is based on Jane Hawking's memoir about her marriage to Stephen, whom she stayed with for 27 years, an admirable achievement on her part to be sure. If the focus of this film takes things from her perspective and strives to really examine what it took to be the wife and for many years, sole caretaker of a man whose disease repeatedly took a toll on both their lives, there is an interesting story to tell in that material. This movie however, chooses to reveal none of the truth- only showing in brief glances and sighs from Jane how hard the struggle is to cope with the task she's undertaken. From this film you'd assume the only difficulty was in helping him to get dressed or feeding him at the table- never mind the bathing or the hardship in raising three children along with taking care of him, never mind the complete avoidance of the issue of their sex life (an important part of marriage sure to be affected by this, yet forbidden by Jane from being explored at all onscreen).
So what do we see in this relationship? Well, we see Jane and Stephen meet at Cambridge in the 1960's, we see them start dating, and then we see Stephen struck down by illness, which is explained as motor neuron disease and only given the briefest possible explanation for what causes it (none about how Stephen managed to outlive every doctor's life expectancy predictions). After that Jane decides to stay with him and the two go on with their lives, often in various montages set to flowery music about how years are passing by with virtually no conflict. According to this film, Jane and Stephen never fought, had one slight conflict regarding her belief in God and his atheism (a subject which is brought up once in the beginning and then recalled for a split second at the end), and parted happily from each other, even though Stephen essentially chooses to leave her for his nurse. Still, she's accepting and never angry. Does anyone believe this is the truth of any marriage?
It's not as if the film is terrible- the glowing cinematography gives everything a very polished hue that makes each shot look like it's being flooded by outer light, but in retrospect the look of the film only serves to enhance the feeling that this is really a fantasy you're watching. But credit where credit is due here- Eddie Redmayne takes the incredible challenge of playing Stephen Hawking and runs with it, delivering a very believable, grueling physical performance that mostly dominates the movie in spite of the extremely shallow script. And Felicity Jones is sturdy and shines as Jane, especially as the second half of the film allows her more to do when Stephen becomes immobilized and the story starts to feel much more like hers than his. But I never felt like I knew either of them as people in the slightest- no one in this film has a conversation that lasts longer than three to five lines of dialogue, and the sole characteristic for both of them is that early reference to her belief in God and his rejection of it (never mind the total glossing over of his work, the thing he's most famous for).
It's not so much the non-focus on his work that I object to- if this was Jane's story, than I can accept that this movie was intended to be the depiction of a unique marriage. But it failed at that by leaving out nearly every detail of what their lives must have really been in order to keep things as superficial and sunny as possible. Still, Redmayne really does deliver as Hawking, and the movie may be worth seeing just for him. But be prepared to leave with far more questions than answers about the life and marriage of Stephen Hawking, and that's a shame indeed.
* * 1/2