The Theory of Everything
Love is a black hole in surprisingly romantic Stephen Hawking biopic
The Theory of Everything
Directed by James Marsh
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis
Some brainy wit once observed that love is just a chemical reaction. That’s as clinically scientific an approach to the subject as you can probably get. Love is, when you break it down at a biochemical level, just a flushing of hormones, a quickening of pulse, a dilation of facial capillary loops—which is probably why more Valentine’s Day cards quote poets than scientists. And yet, even the most logical members of our species are not immune to it.
The Theory of Everything takes a look at the life (and, by extension, the love life) of famed theoretical physicist, cosmologist and all-around big thinker Stephen Hawking. It’s based on the memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, written by his first wife, Jane Hawking. This gives the film a certain perspective—though not quite the perspective it would have exhibited had filmmakers chosen to adapt Jane’s earlier, considerably more bitter tell-all Music to Move the Stars. The story here doesn’t shy away from Hawking’s famous scientific breakthroughs, which cover everything from black holes to the Big Bang to the concept of time itself. But it reveals a bit more about the man behind the math than most of us have been privy to prior.
We meet Stephen (played by Eddie Redmayne) in the mid 1960s, when he’s a star student at Cambridge. He’s like Mr. July in the Nerd of the Month Calendar, his gangly body twisted up like a shoelace knot and his head forever lost in a fog of numbers and equations. He emerges from academia, though, when he meets pretty undergrad Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). Their brief, happy hookup threatens to come to a screeching halt, however, when Stephen is diagnosed with a rare neuromuscular disorder. The affliction is degenerative and, as an obviously misguided doctor informs him, fatal in about two years.
Jane is a sturdy sort, however, and is determined to seize hold of whatever fleeting joy life has offered. She insists that Stephen marry her and start a family right away. Although his physical condition continues to diminish, his love for Jane keeps him plugging forward. Surviving well past the two-year mortality prediction, Stephen completes his Ph.D. candidacy, fathers a gaggle of kids and starts to garner some serious attention for his wild theories about space-time.
Redmayne—a supporting actor who’s popped up in films like Les Misérables, My Week with Marilyn and that Pillars of the Earth miniseries—is the talk of the town here. His embodiment of Hawking is engrossing on both a physical and a mental level. In addition to the tremendous physical transformation he goes through, Redmayne nails Stephen’s occasionally cheeky wit—which keeps the film from ever becoming a downer of a medical drama. It is clear very early on that The Theory of Everything has a serious case of Oscar Fever. You could line this film up against other inspirational Oscar bait films in which an actor has portrayed a profoundly handicapped, real-life person (My Left Foot, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Sessions). But a great performance is a great performance. Redmayne gets a sturdy assist from another up-and-coming British actor, Ms. Jones (who appeared in Like Crazy, Hysteria and the BBC’s Diary of Anne Frank miniseries). The connection between Stephen and Jane is strong, believable and somehow quite logical.
Although it covers all the important bases of Hawking’s life, The Theory of Everything is, at its heart, a love story. As directed by documentarian James Marsh (Wisconsin Death Trip, Man on Wire, Project Nim), The Theory of Everything comes across as a terribly sensible sort of romantic drama, full of even-keeled emotions and properly British declarations of devotion. Though it’s not what you’d call the most passionate of love stories, it does have a certain intensity to it. Stephen’s muscular control continues to shut down, eventually stripping even his ability to speak, causing his relationship with Jane to go through some tough permutations. Once Stephen is confined to his trademark wheelchair, it falls on Jane to take care of him. As he becomes more famous due to his writings, it’s up to Jane to hold down the homestead while he’s off lecturing or receiving awards. Stalwart and loyal as she is, her domestic resolve begins to waver.
Eminently intelligent, sympathetically acted and shot in a nostalgically tweedy color palette, The Theory of Everything is romantic but never sentimental. We do get tears in the end, but they’re well-earned and have a certain “Keep calm and carry on” quality to them. The film doesn’t want to lay any sort of blame on anyone or wallow in regrets. Hence, it paints everyone in the kind light of hindsight. In the end do we walk away with a deeper and more profound understanding of what goes on inside the famed mind of Mr. Hawking? Probably not. Maybe we average SAT scorers aren’t capable of it. But at least we can rest assured in the idea that even the world’s smartest man wasn’t any more capable of figuring out this ancient riddle called love than we are.