"One single unifying equation that explains everything in the universe...that is the question," frets Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and while it's not exactly "To be or not to be," the line does pithily sum up the cosmologist's vocational quest. Unfortunately, the movie around that question, with its equation tantalizingly out of reach, winds up being by the numbers.
Based on the memoir Traveling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen by Jane Hawking, The Theory of Everything begins at Cambridge in 1963, where Hawking (Tony-winning master thespian Eddie Redmayne) pursues a Ph.D. in physics, he and future wife Jane (Felicity Jones, transparently milking tears) woo each other, and Hawking learns that he has the progressive neurological disorder "motor neuron disease," a.k.a. ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease. With gradual muscle wasting threatening his ability to communicate and even breathe, Hawking gets a prognosis of roughly two years to live, though as most are aware, Hawking continues to live and work (and coooperate with a movie about his life) today.
A rail-thin Redmayne skillfully adopts a collection of tics (curled lip, toothy grin, klutzy limbs) and allows the character's disease to corrupt them (a facial rictus, twisted posture), but he achieves a yet more impressive alchemy by convincingly inhabiting Hawking's famous personality (genius, fertile wit and general indomitability). It's hard not to think Oscar, and somewhat cynically, in this My Left Foot-esque territory. Certainly screenwriter Anthony McCarten does nothing to dissuade the impression that he's paving a path towards awards gold with the formula of overcoming adversity in tony English settings.
But The Theory of Everything frontloads convention and mawkish melodrama while consistently keeping the deeper implications submerged at a level of never plumbed subtext. Hawking's work proves recessive in the narrative, and even when his marriage to Jane hits rocky ground—made bumpy by progressive illness and goodhearted but dangerously attractive caregivers (Charlie Cox, Maxine Peake)—the picture deals with the complications in the most rote ways possible. By way of distraction, director James Marsh (Shadowdancer, Man on Wire) enables annoying style (twinkly photography and overinsistent scoring) over nourishing substance, which does neither Redmayne nor Jones any favors.
Only Redmayne's performance overcomes to elevate The Theory of Everything to something special: an actor's showcase. But with characterizations that skew toward saintliness neutering what had to be a more complex and fascinating marital relationship, Marsh's film settles for inoffensive feelgoodery, gives anything provocative a wide berth, and arrives at merry cliche: "Where there is life, there is hope." That's nice and all, and has the benefit of being true, but it's hardly the theory of everything Hawking had, and has, in mind.