Why bother reviewing a film like The Theory of Everything? Let’s be slightly unfair for a moment. A film like this exists primarily as Oscar bait – viewed by actors, directors, writers and producers as a career stepping stone, the Oscar-winning film that nobody will particularly enjoy all that much but which will lead to greater and better opportunities, like a superhero franchise all your own. I am being cynical here – I don’t really think that this is the only reason The Theory of Everything exists. And yet the film is so drab, and dull, and paint-by-numbers conventional that it really doesn’t seem like there was any attempt whatsoever to do anything interesting here at all. There is no joy or excitement or experimentation in this film, just a dull exercise in filmmaking for the January schedules.
The Stephen Hawking Story – re-organised for an accessible film with as little science as could conceivably be put into a film about a scientist, an increasingly debilitating illness that knows to kick in at the most emotionally powerful moment, an able-bodied actor summoning all of his skill to mimic a real illness, a score that points out when something is supposed to be heart-rending or –warming, a condescending tone, a dream about walking that feels unhelpful and the story of a life re-written to the beats of the Oscar Drama Template (Disability).
Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones (the latter quite good, actually) are given only a few scenes in which they are allowed to act. The rest of the time they are repressing so that those rare moments of acting will register in the mind of the near-comatose audience. Director James Marsh keeps everything recognisable so as not to overwork a tired audience. Anthony McCarten starts with a tagline – ‘His Mind Changed Our World. Her Love Changed His’ – and yawns his way through the average-length script with numerous nods to A Beautiful Mind, an Oscar-winning genius-with-a-disability success story in somewhat recent memory. In short, nobody seems to be trying very hard and nothing that isn’t unexceptional is allowed to happen. That leaves us with only the recognisable. We have the funny scene that turns sad due to a sudden relapse, the sad scene with some ‘unexpected’ humour, the scenes where loves and lives and sicknesses are all carefully organised to push along a film with a strict three-act structure and a fear of any complication that doesn’t fit the ‘story.’ This is not about praising or documenting a real life struggle, it is about negating real life and trying to find the best framework for presenting a reality in the most lucrative and rewarding manner possible. It is a film of professional ambition and cold, cynical emotional box-ticking.
It isn’t that this film is particularly bad. But it is so happy to be bland and unrewarding and unoriginal that it actually makes you angry. Why spend so much money and take up so much of everyone’s time and effort only to achieve a film like this? It isn’t even that this film should be offering anything new – there are many great films that are also somewhat redundant – but The Theory of Everything offers nothing. There is nothing it does that hasn’t been done before – not even by accident. You watch it and you just dream of something, anything, everything that the film could be or could do to shock, surprise, entertain, inform, challenge or excite but the film remains bland. The one good thing that the film manages is that, when it’s over, you are ready for a Cassavetes, an Altman, a Godard, a Loach, a Fellini, something, anything alive.