The Theory of Everything, James Marsh’s new film finally in wide release this weekend, is first and foremost a love story. Yes, of course it’s a biopic of Stephen Hawking, the world’s best-known theoretical physicist. Yes, it’s most memorably the story of Hawking’s battle to maintain his professional and personal life in the face of a degenerative disease that gradually and inexorably takes away every voluntary physical function. But beyond any of this, it is the story of his relationship with his wife Jane Wilde, whose 2007 memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen was adapted by Anthony McCarten for the screenplay.
Largely because of its source material, we see the story to a large extent from Jane’s perspective. Perhaps this is also the natural consequence of the fact that most people would have a great deal of difficulty imagining Stephen’s point of view. But the film takes things from Stephen and Jane’s first meeting in 1963, through a brief courtship in which Stephen, a very awkward but charming young Cambridge Ph.D. student, wins over Jane, whose subject is French and Spanish and who wants to write a dissertation on medieval Iberian poetry. Stephen’s awkwardness, however, turns out to be something other than youthful exuberance or nervousness with the opposite sex. When he falls on the pavement crossing a Cambridge square, he is rushed to the hospital, where he is diagnosed with a “motor neuron disease”—Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS—and is told quite definitively by the doctor that he has two years to live. He is 21 years old.
It is Jane who rallies Stephen out of his hopeless funk, and it is Jane who marries him, becomes his live-in round the clock caretaker and the mother of his three children, and she who to a large extent makes possible the completion of his Ph.D. dissertation, in which he argues that the origin of the universe came about through a space-time singularity, such as might be found at the center of a black hole. This is the beginning of Stephen’s rise to international prominence, but it also occurs in the midst of his declining ability to take care of himself, and Jane’s progressively more haggard appearance as she struggles to have some kind of life of her own. Ultimately, as might be predicted, Jane’s ability to cope with a fiercely trying situation that, in all honesty, she assumed could only last for two years when she married Stephen, is strained to the breaking point. Thus the movie is a love story of unusually difficult circumstances with the love put into the crucible of real life at its most demanding—a strain under which no true love can last indefinitely.
Eddie Redmayne (Les Misérables, My Week with Marilyn) has the role of a lifetime in playing Hawking. It is the kind of part that virtually guarantees the actor an Oscar nomination—think Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, or Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Redmayne is extraordinary in the role. You really cannot take your eyes off him as he sinks gradually into the illness that takes away his mobility, slurs his speech, ultimately paralyzes him and, after a tracheotomy, takes away any speech at all, so that he communicates through a mechanical device on which he can type with the small remaining mobility in a few fingers and which sends out a mechanical voice. With his face distorted and nearly immobile, Redmayne ultimately communicates only through his eyes, yet is still able to express a range of emotions. He even manages to convey Hawking’s ability to retain the sense of humor and self-deprecating irony evident in the youthful student of the film’s early scenes, commenting in his slurred voice from his wheelchair to an eminent scientist who walks out of his presentation of a controversial theory, “Was it something I said, Professor?”
Such roles as Redmayne’s are showy because they stretch the actor’s skills and challenge him physically and emotionally. But in any film featuring a showcase role like this, there must be another actor whose task is the more mundane one of playing the embodiment of the everyday world who must deal with the extreme challenge posed by the central character. That is in many ways a more difficult role, because it involves far more subtle acting. Tom Cruise’s role opposite Hoffman in Rainman is arguably his greatest performance, though it often goes unnoticed. In this film, Felicity Jones (The Amazing Spiderman 2, The Invisible Woman) is nothing short of amazing herself as Jane Wilde. She goes through her own degeneration as the strain of her life drags on inexorably, as her own dreams suffer in the wake of Stephen’s needs and triumphs, as she catches at shreds of happiness only to reject that happiness to return to her duty. I hope that when Oscar time rolls around, her performance is not overshadowed by Redmayne’s, and that she receives the recognition she deserves as well.
This is not to say that the movie is perfect. For one thing, it suffers from the loose structure and scattered plot so common to biopics. What made Spielberg’s Lincoln such an excellent example of the genre was its focus on a single vital incident in Lincoln’s life that epitomized his character and his historical significance. Concentrating on Stephen and Jane’s relationship does give the film some direction, but the decades that the story covers dilute the impact of some of the plot’s developments. Still the film does avoid any suggestion of the simple “happily ever after” ending so often favored by Hollywood. Despite a fairly schmaltzy scene on an American lecture tour near the end of the film in which Stephen tells his listeners that “no matter how bad life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at…where there’s life, there’s hope,” the movie has very little of this sort of Lifetime movie sentimentality and really does focus on the realism of relationships, and what even the strongest marriages can be expected to endure and not endure. At one point Stephen comments to Jane—not without some deliberate irony—that they are just “a normal family.” While this is manifestly not true and merely exacerbates Jane’s anger at the time, there is a sense in which the statement is true: no matter how strong their bond, there are some strains that no “normal” relationship can weather.
One of the things that the film could do better is explore the spiritual and philosophical differences that parallel the emotional strain in the marriage. When Stephen and Jane first meet, she tells him she is “C of E,” which it takes him awhile to realize means Church of England. He tells her he is a “cosmologist” whose faith is in the potential discovery of “one single unifying equation that explains everything in the universe” —the “theory of everything.” But this potential conflict surfaces only twice more in the film: once when Jane, explaining Stephen’s theories to the couple’s new friend and part time caregiver Jonathan (Charlie Cox), her church choir director, demonstrates with no small degree of annoyance (while Stephen displays no small amount of smugness) how his initial theory was not inconsistent with the existence of a creator, but his more recent theory precludes any possibility of divinity. The second time is near the end of the film, when Jane, reading a part of the manuscript of what would become Hawking’s hugely popular book A Brief History of Time, is ecstatic over a reference he makes to “the mind of God.” Perhaps Marsh and McArten thought it best to barely touch on this conflict—perhaps they thought Stephen would be less sympathetic to a popular film audience if his atheism were more heavily stressed. Maybe they also felt the “where there’s life there’s hope” speech would go far in retaining that sympathy. Either way, this seems like a bit of a sellout.
But for the most part March, the Academy Award winning director of the documentaries Man on a Wire and Project Nim, creates a brilliantly acted movie with a beautiful look—the shots of Cambridge and its environs are picturesque, and the recreation of a state-of-the-art 1963 physics laboratory is amusing as well as fascinating. Overall, this movie is well worth watching and boasts two Oscar-worthy performances by the principle characters. It avoids, nearly completely, the temptation to create a cliché sentimental drama about a brave couple who defy the odds and create a successful marriage, underscoring the maxim “where there’s life there’s hope.” Instead, it creates, for the most part, an honest look at a relationship under extreme pressures, and the difficulties, temptations, successes and failures that real people undergo in such circumstances. I hereby grant this film three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.