The crisp air, the pumpkin-flavored things, the respectful biopics about troubled famous people: these are the unmistakable signs of autumn. “The Theory of Everything” is about Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist with the robot voice, and it is as gentle, reliable, and pretty to look at as the falling of the leaves. It also has approximately the same level of dramatic tension.
Directed by James Marsh, who’s best known for the thrilling documentaries “Man on Wire” and “Project Nim”, “The Theory of Everything” is muted and restrained, content to tell its loving story with a minimum of conflict and a maximum of niceness. It’s the basic biopic package, but with the extreme highs and lows evened out to a steady mellowness. Obstacles are smoothly overcome. Nobody’s mean or angry. Nobody even swears. You come away vaguely impressed by the man’s mind, your own mind pacified for two hours, but unmoved emotionally.
Eddie Redmayne plays the esteemed scientist with intense and impressive physicality. He comes to our attention in 1963, when he is a gangly, bow-tied Cambridge student who always sounds on the verge of tears. In the first few scenes, Anthony McCarten’s workmanlike screenplay sets up everything the film will be about: Stephen’s astonishing mind, which lets him skate through his physics courses unseriously; his romance with with fellow student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones); and his motor neuron disease, similar to Lou Gehrig’s, which will gradually cripple him and take his voice.
It’s a tight, small story, focused not on Hawking’s fame and notoriety, nor even really on his genius, but on his physical condition and his relationship with Jane. Surely these topics are rife with possible drama, or so you would think. But instead, accompanied by Johann Johannsson’s tuneful score, Marsh delivers scene after pleasant scene of Stephen requiring Jane’s assistance (which she gladly gives), or of a kindly choirmaster (Charlie Cox) befriending the couple and developing feelings for Jane (which are discreetly handled), or of people telling Stephen how smart he is (which he accepts with graciousness). Occasionally there are nods to Stephen’s atheism, with which Jane disagrees, but not enough to produce a spark. We wouldn’t want anything to sully this nice time we’re having.
On the one hand, a biopic that’s serious-minded but not too heavy is a relief. Certainly there are worse ways to spend 123 minutes than being lightly instructed on the general content of a genius’ life. But on the other hand, story needs conflict and characters need change, and “The Theory of Everything” offers little of either.
Which is a shame, because Redmayne and Jones’ performances are quite good, each conveying a range of emotions and a commitment to the integrity of the characters. Jane is a strong, loving woman, not a doormat like many biopic wives. Stephen shows impish humor and constant level-headedness, never succumbing to histrionics. If their lives together were as placid and uneventful as the movie makes them seem, then 1) they were truly blessed, and 2) they probably could have told you themselves that they wouldn’t make very good film protagonists.
But it’s not a bad film. Not bad at all! It ambles along peacefully, it refuses to ruffle any feathers, and it showcases the fine work of capable thespians. What is there to complain about? Other than the fact that once you’ve watched it, you will likely never feel the desire to watch it again. Come winter, all this serene autumnal coziness will be forgotten.
B- (2 hrs., 3 min.; )
Originally published at Complex.