Everything about The Theory of Everything should drive me crazy, in theory. You’ve got science reduced to self-explanatory equations and the word “brilliant!” You’ve got a lead character who overcomes great adversity, inevitably garnering the actor praise for his “total transformation.” You’ve got a trailer which manages to shoehorn both shaky-cam-wedding-footage and motivational-speech-with-standing-ovation. And the ultimate trump card: “it’s a true story”, so the cheese is immune to critique. It should be the Lifetime version of A Beautiful Mind. It should be a Jobs you’re not allowed to hate.
But wind back the inspirational speeches and hokey science, and you’ll find an odd, pleasantly small love story. I braced myself for a sledgehammer biopic about Stephen, only to be hit by the nuanced story of Jane; informed by his genius and hardships, but never overshadowed by them. Not that his life is sidelined: Eddie Redmayne gives an enormous performance which, yes, sigh, really ought to be praised as a “transformation.” He’s wonderful. But with a story this powerful, less is more: give it too much weight and it’ll crush everything else beneath its emotional horizon. Instead we watch the bullet points of Hawking’s life in (unexpected) fast-forward, through a character who respects him, roots for him, and is frequently burdened and dismissed by him. His otherwise idolized character is humanized, and occasionally made infuriating, by Felicity Jone’s gaze. Some might be disappointed by that point of view, but I found it fascinating and charming. The film is a little oddly paced, and seemed to cave to melodrama whenever I was about to love it for its restraint. But I liked it quite a bit, warts and all. It had all the sap I expected, but for some reason that didn’t phase me: there’s probably some elegant equation on a blackboard to define that balance. Something about love, black holes, and gravity transcending space and time. Either way, quit criticizing, it’s a true story.