Opening Friday

The biopic is a troubled genre. So many movies based on the life of someone well-known boil down to casting an actor who looks and sounds like the subject, which can be easily dismissed as mere mimicry. And then there’s usually the thankless female role, where an award-winning actress has to cry and throw plates at the wall for dramatic effect, only to smile at her hero in the final shot.

Director James Marsh (Man on Wire) is able to partially sidestep the latter cliché by basing THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, a British biopic on theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, on his marriage to Jane Wilde, relying on her autobiography Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen to detail the turbulent marriage between the two. While not entirely successful in giving us a true female view on the Hollywood-style love story, it’s at least a step in the right direction.

Eddie Redmayne (Les Misérables) stars as Hawking, a gawky Oxford student who manages to capture the attention of beautiful student Wilde (Felicity Jones). Despite his bumbling behavior and failure at small talk, the two quickly fall in love.

Then Hawking is diagnosed with a motor neuron disease, which arrives in the form of all mainstream movie illnesses: a few small trembles, a fall and a doctor delivering the news that Hawking has only a couple of years to live. At first, Hawking decides to save Jane from the trouble of watching him slowly die, so he shuts her out and devotes his energy to his scientific pursuits. Naturally, she breaks through his defenses in no time.

Willing to curtail her own career aspirations in order to care for Hawking and their growing family, Wilde soon finds that she needs help with daily duties that her husband isn’t physically able to provide, so the couple hires a dashing church organist (Boardwalk Empire‘s Charlie Cox) to handle some chores.

You can see where this is going. While admirably attempting to give the woman in the shadow of a great man equal time in the spotlight, Marsh is too swayed by Wilde’s version of events, and at times, the film seems to be less about Hawking’s story than Wilde’s justifications for her dalliances.

Winning performances by both leads elevate the material, with Jones meeting the challenge of playing against Redmayne’s showier role every step of the way. It would have been easy to coast on the warm feelings many have for Hawking, but Redmayne does not play the man as a saint. Hawking has always been a complex figure, and while Theory doesn’t answer many of the questions that viewers might have, it deserves points for not going down the too-easy route of ignoring his faults. If the same could be said for Wilde’s character, this would be a truly worthy film.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Aiming high and low”