A life as immense and well-regarded as Stephen Hawking’s requires finesse and the utmost delicacy. Much like Albert Einstein, the challenge is doing more than plainly saying “Here’s a brilliant mind and the story of how he became brilliant.” The Theory of Everything goes around those obstacles by not making it about Hawking explicitly, but about the struggles both him and his wife Jane faced; the uphill battle of being in a relationship with someone suffering from a debilitating disability. Although the script questions who yields the better story, The Theory of Everything is a thought-provoking tale of perseverance grounded by leads Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.
The film tells of the enduring romance between physicist Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Jones), as well as explores the theories and publication of Hawking’s landmark text, A Brief History of Time, and his determination to find one unifying theory explaining the universe.
Between this and the upcoming Imitation Game there’s definitely a market for movies about brilliant British minds. The Theory of Everything certainly understands Hawking’s contribution to the world of science, and does a better job than Christopher Nolan at explaining complex scientific ideals without devolving into schmaltz and sentimentality as a way of covering its logic gaps. Director James Marsh, much like Nolan, seeks to push forward love as a quantifiable element in our universe, but he bathes that in a tale about overcoming the odds and showing us what true love and devotion looks like. Remove Hawking as a personality, and his scientific theories and much of the movie’s mettle comes from watching two characters struggle with ALS and how a marriage overcomes that burden.
The film charts Hawking’s progression into the wheelchair bound man he is now. We watch Hawking learn about his diagnosis – given a life expectancy of two years – and his tries to dissuade Jane from marrying him. After the two do marry, the story shifts to Jane’s challenges to find her own identity outside of being the genius’ wife and caretaker. Too often disability in film is depicted as a death sentence or the start of a lonely existence; the film never sugarcoats the problems of ALS, but says there is a compromise and an ability to find personal happiness, all boiling down to a person’s individual “theory of everything.”
None of this would work as well as it does without two commensurate leads in Redmayne and Jones. Redmayne researched the effects of ALS, right down to changing his posture enough to alter his spine (a similar story John Hawkes told about his own work in The Sessions). The more interesting thing to note is that, since the movie was filmed out of order, Redmayne had to remember which “stage” of the disability he was in, making small moments like seeing the slow changing of his hands, all the more poignant. With a lengthy runtime the movie eschews stereotypes like watching the character adapting to his new life, although elements like that are there. The moments of adaptation are subtle, and, at times, very funny. When Hawking’s best friend, Brian (Harry Lloyd), pulls Hawking and his chair up a flight of stairs before depositing the man in a statue, you laugh because of the support system Hawking has obtained, and how both characters adapt to these changes in their own way. Redmayne never plays up the character for a big Oscar Moment, although the nature of the film itself can feel like a big, two-hour, Oscar moment.
For all of Redmayne’s work this is Jones’ picture. Based on the real Jane Hawking’s memoirs, it stands to reason we’d see the film through her character’s eyes. Jones conveys Jane’s determination, her stalwart refusal to give up on the man she loves. Much of this could come off as the “supportive wife” trope, a la A Beautiful Mind, but the script gives us several moments of watching Jane search for her own identity. Before marrying Hawking she mentions an interest in literature, and we watch her attempts at studying while caring for three children and a disabled husband. Jones has an elegant way of conveying disappointment while remaining upbeat; she is an actress for whom it’s all in the eyes. There is never an aura of shame because Jane owns her choices, but it’s no picnic; this is a woman who, regardless whether her husband is disabled or not, would find it difficult to be something beyond wife and mother; the addition of Hawking’s illness makes it harder.
The middle of the movie actually sees Redmayne take a backseat to Jones as she cares for her husband and fights her feelings for an earnest choir director played by Charlie Cox. You may start to wonder where Hawking fits into all this, and he’s there but not a main player. It’s an interesting change of pace for movies in this genre, again where the supportive wife usually takes a backseat. In this case, we watch Jones come into her own, be accused of cheating on her husband, and ultimately find her own voice. You may be surprised at how Stephen-less this middle is, particularly since there’s no indication of it in the marketing materials, and it can seem fairly unbalanced, but Jones dominates in an splendid performance worthy of awards.
I did take umbrage with the shaming Jane takes for being around Cox’s character, yet the third act sees Hawking abandon his wife for another woman. The whole thing comes off like the gander is allowing the goose to be free, and I couldn’t really understand the logic; it just made Hawking look fickle.
Overall, The Theory of Everything is an intimate character study of an icon and the nearly unknown woman he loved. Redmayne turns in an authentic performance, while Jones asserts herself as a serious A-list actress in a sensitive portrait of womanhood.