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Review: 'The Theory of Everything' is a semi-reluctant Stephen Hawking biopic

But at least there's great turns from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Jane, his wife.
The Theory of Everything

Felicty Jones gets macked on by Eddie Redmayne's Stephen Hawking in "The Theory ofLiam Daniel, Focus Features

'The Theory of Everything'
Director:
James Marsh
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

As far as biopics subjects go, Hawking would seem to have it all: He has a brilliant mind, a struggle against adversity, a patient but suffering wife. The actor playing him (Eddie Redmayne) has to portray the decay of the theoretical physicist's body functions as he succumbs to motor neuron disease. It seems like it's all there — except that Hawking, and his wife Jane (played by Felicity Jones), powered through their many troubles with a classic English stiff upper lip. And the film itself, “The Theory of Everything,” is restrained far as these things go — unsentimental, serious but with a sense of humor borrowed from Stephen himself. (Though, of course, this is nothing like a comedy.) Indeed, that it’s respectable at all is actually a hindrance, because, try as it might, it’s still a rote biopic.

It does have a focus: It’s the admittedly unusual (for movies, anyway) love story of Stephen and Jane, who meet at school, when he’s an Oxford bright light and she a pretty lit major. She’s a devout Christian and he, obviously, is not. But the film doesn’t make a meal out of what could have been an easy dilemma. It makes a meal out of nothing: Jane’s decision to stay with Stephen as his body collapsed on him, even at a young age, is portrayed as difficult-to-reach but a no-brainer. And when she falls for another man — a Hugh Grant-y stuttering shy dreamboat played by about-to-be Daredevil Charlie Cox — the movie is cool and nonjudgmental to accept this third wheel partner as basically a good thing.

The only other time Hawking got the docudrama treatment was the 2004 TV movie “Hawking,” starring no less than Benedict Cumberbatch. That only focused on his Oxford rock star days, with a little dip towards the end into the early onset of his disease. “The Theory of Everything” spans decades, though at least goes soft on the crap old age makeup, even, borderline avant-garde it may be, when our very young-looking actors are ostensibly playing grandparents. It’s an unimaginative way to go, and all it has going for it is the gentle hand of director James Marsh — a clearly intelligent man whose work (“Man on Wire,” “Project Nim”) can sometimes seem a bit shallow — and the charm of its actors.

And the actors are terrific. Redmayne never showboats; once Hawking has settled into his disease, he communicates loads with his expressive eyebrows and an instant happy-making mischievous grin. Jones does the English thing of holding back her roiling emotions; in a way she can be as trapped inside her body as Hawking, only able to telegraph what she’s feeling through her oft-anguished eyes. But this is still a film that hits all the dumb biopic notes, especially in its second half, when Hawking gets his combination motorized chair and neato computer voice system. (The one funny bit about this: Jane chastising it for having an American accent.) It even has Hawking fumbling with the title of his first book, suddenly realizing he should interject “Brief” into what was once “A History of Time.” But his voice and his biggest bestseller are the few things everyone definitely knows about Hawking, and this is not the type of film to avoid slavishly doting on them. It’s a film of great performances and nice moments and nothing else — though every now and then that seems like enough.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @
mattprigge

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