With the exception of this sentence, I am going to refrain from criticising The Theory of Everything, the middle-of-the-road Stephen Hawking biopic, as mere “Oscar-bait”. Sure, this is exactly how the film plays out when viewed at this point in awards season – after all, it’s a biopic of a scientist with a life-threatening illness who overcomes all the odds against him. When viewed outside of awards season, it will likely be shown up for the mediocrity it is, with yet another non-disabled actor relishing the opportunity to go (in the unfortunate shorthand ushered in by Tropic Thunder) “full retard” in order to power to awards glory. Of course, you couldn’t get a person with motor neurone disease to perform this role; but with Stephen Hawking’s inspirational life story already so well-known, there was clearly no need for this mediocrity to be made.
The fact that Eddie Redmayne, a screen presence so boring he makes Sam Worthington seem like Marlon Brando, has been receiving nothing but praise for what I would deem a borderline offensive performance is beyond me. Even before Hawking develops motor neurone disease, Redmayne overplays the role with facial tics that show a lack of understanding to how disabled people actually act, making him look like a cross between Ricky Gervais’ muggingly self-important Derek character and a man ejaculating. Paired up with Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking, they make for the most boring screen couple in recent cinema history.
The film is based on Jane Hawking’s memoir “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen”, yet you could be easily forgiven for thinking it was a mere dramatisation of Hawking’s Wikipedia page. The movie is scripted, directed and acted with all the passion of a Crimewatch reconstruction and only half as interesting. The fact that the movie is directed by acclaimed documentarian James Marsh is somewhat shocking. His most successful documentaries, Man on Wire and Project Nim, are effortlessly engaging on an emotional level even though the stories frequently sound too ridiculous to be true, drawing frequent comparisons to Errol Morris, the most acclaimed documentary filmmaker of our times. However, he has also received frequent criticism for “plagiarising” Morris’ style of documentary filmmaking, which shouldn’t go unmentioned here.
One of Morris’ most popular documentaries is 1991’s A Brief History of Time, an adaptation of Hawking’s book that also doubles as a documentary on his extraordinary life. By effectively remaking this documentary as a drama, even if it is billed as being a memoir from the other side of the relationship, Marsh undermines the talents he has a filmmaker and shows himself up as little more than a hack enamoured by Morris’ filmmaking style. In doing this, he has removed what makes Hawking’s life story so special and so interesting in the first place; despite being based on a true story, very little of it actually rings true, with many awkward sequences added in the hope of making a “feel-good crowd pleaser”.
The biggest offender is a late sequence where Hawking is giving a Q&A in America, where he gives cod-inspirational answers to every question asked in a manner that the real Hawking never would, topped off with a toe-curling sequence where he gets out of his wheelchair to pick up a pen (yes, really). If Marsh’s filmography has seen him finding realism in the most bizarre of stories, then this is the clear antithesis – turning a well-known story into something that sounds like it was invented by a coked-up screenwriter.
Just like The Imitation Game, another biopic of one of the best Britons of the 20th century, it dumbs down the life story of a genius in order to make him acceptable to dumb multiplex audiences. In that film, it was to make Alan Turing a socially-awkward recluse of the kind we are used to see Benedict Cumberbatch playing and to never explain the complex maths that went into his “enigma machine”. In The Theory of Everything, it’s dumbed down by never mentioning any of Hawking’s scientific achievements, with the god-awful screenplay by Anthony McCarten instead avoiding science at all costs as the dumb-dumbs in the audience probably won’t understand it. This is probably the first biopic of a scientist that mentions religion more than science itself, something that a cynic like me would assume has been done in order to get American audiences to watch it. I am interested in Hawking’s achievements as a scientist, just as I am interested in Alan Turing’s achievements as a mathematician; filmmakers just seem to assume that I only want to hear the kind of human interest stories you find daily in tabloid newspapers, when they are always the least interesting part of any biopic.
A Stephen Hawking biopic was always inevitable, but the fact it is so boring is remarkable. To me, the only way to make this movie interesting was if it were directed by David Cronenberg; a body horror movie about a man losing control of his own body and slowly turning into a machine? Well, I’m sold on that.