When people throw around the phrase “Oscar bait,” everybody knows they’re usually talking about audience-pleasing, middlebrow, triumph-over-adversity tales that are often based on the lives of real people. Oscar bait shouldn’t have a negative connotation—these films can be good or bad—but they always leave you with the unshakable feeling that they were made by people with one eye on awards glory. James Marsh serves up a quintessential example of this trend with The Theory of Everything, a biopic of renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, widely regarded as one of the leading scientific minds of his time.
Tellingly, Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten are far less interested in teaching the audience about Hawking’s work than in shaping an unconventional love story. They do this with ease in the film’s opening passages, in which a young, brilliant, and fully healthy Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is the most promising student at Cambridge under the guidance of Prof. Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis). While working on a thesis that will eventually revolutionize the concept of time, Hawking falls in love with fellow student Jane (Felicity Jones), who is as impressed by his mind as she is by his wit.
After a nasty fall on campus, however, Hawking is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a condition that steadily weakens the human body to the point of total incapacity. As he and Jane try to raise a family, she becomes his nurse as much as his wife—this development leads to an incredible strain on their relationship, which causes Jane to feel both regret and resentment.
Eddie Redmayne does an admirably credible job at portraying the vocal and physical limitations of Hawking’s condition. It’s the kind of performance that will get plenty of awards attention because of the physical transformation required, but he’s also a pleasingly awkward charmer in the movie’s first act as he establishes Hawking’s playfulness and impish wit. When he cracks jokes later, we remember the face he would have made along with them.
Felicity Jones is the perfect foil for him during their courtship, but there’s an odd quirk about her performance as the film unfolds—she doesn’t seem to grow any older. At one point their son is 11, yet she appears exactly the same as when she was a student at Cambridge. Her acting is absolutely fine, but she looks so young for so long that it becomes a credibility problem. After all, how could the man who knows more about time than any human being alive not notice that it seems to have no effect on his spouse?
That would be a minor complaint if the movie went somewhere unexpected. The best moments are found at the end of Jane and Stephen’s marriage, when his handicaps add a layer of poignancy to scenes that are familiar from many other well-intentioned dramas about a doomed marriage. Otherwise, Marsh and company follow the Oscar-bait manual to the letter. This is a handsomely produced, sensitively acted picture, one that’s eager to have you wipe away a tear with one hand while handing over gold statues with the other.