You know the form. Oxbridge actors filmed by an Oxbridge director while the sunlight dapples the honeyed college buildings and (probably Oxbridge) extras walk about quads looking, well, very Oxbridge. Nobody seems to do much work, money sloshes about and someone is overcoming extreme personal challenges. Between this caricature and its Mike Leigh / Ken Loach mirror somewhere up North with ex-members of 7:84 or Hull Truck Theatre doing the Oxbridgers’ roles, you might just be able to tell why I tend to cast a rather jaundiced eye at British films.
The Theory of Everything deserves better than that – just. It is distinguished by two splendid central performances from bee-stung lipped pretty boy turned twisting professor Eddie Redmayne and bee-stung lipped pretty girl turned saintly carer Felicity Jones (as Stephen and Jane Hawking). Both should feature in the upcoming awards jamborees with Redmayne well ahead of Cumberbatch for my money in the Eton vs Harrow old boys face-off. The principals are worth keeping an eye on (well, it won’t take much effort doing that I suspect) as both almost certainly have much more to offer in future projects having had to throttle back in the second half of the movie.
And that’s where the problem lies. For an hour or so, the love story under pressure is set against Hawking’s rapidly disintegrating body and burgeoning scientific career. Though (as the quip doing the rounds claims) there’s not much theory in the The Theory of Everything, there’s a sense of his genius, of the nature of academic work, of something unique. Hawking is funny too, but, apart from his atheism and Jane’s High(ish) Anglicanism, we’re told nothing of their backstories, so we do what we can to fill in the gaps with cues from accents, clothes and all the tedious markers of English class – because, well, it matters (even if it shouldn’t).
And, once Charlie Cox walks on the scene with a sympathetic eye and a sympathetic story of his own that made even me want to hug him, the film loses its extraordinary quality and becomes a rather conventional tale of two people drifting apart as they find the needs they had in their mid-twenties differ from the needs they have in their late-forties.
Hawking falls for a rather less rounded (if more curvy) nurse whom one is given to believe is not driven by the most noble of motives, and soon the removal men are in and the family photos are being divvied up. You end up pleased for the two of them really, as it can’t have been easy, and it’s especially heartwarming to witness the late, somewhat unexpected, reconciliation at Buckingham Palace. That said, it’s disappointing to have to flick the Wikipedia switch to find out that Jane is a professor in her own right having been seen for less than ten seconds actually studying her subject of Iberian medieval poetry (barely tolerated by the geekish men of course). At least she fares better than Alicia Nash, John Nash’s wife, in the dismal A Beautiful Mind, a film that shares much with this one though is inferior in all aspects.
That real-life events have been manipulated for dramatic effect (see this piece in Slate for some of those elisions and extensions) is fine by me – it’s entertainment, not history – but it’s a shame that the film falls away into something not far removed from a soap opera storyline. Perhaps, in the last 45 minutes or so, a little more would made the time pass a little less slowly.