Based on the second and less controversial book by Jane Hawking detailing her life with famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, the new drama from director James Marsh, The Theory of Everything, is quite extraordinary. Part of what makes watching the film such a thrill is not so much the performances of all concerned – even though they are uniformly good throughout – it’s discovering things about a man and a relationship you thought you knew but didn’t.
When Cambridge student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) first meets fellow student Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) during the early 60’s he’s a healthy and surprisingly active young man on campus with a keen wit and a healthy interest in Jane. When explaining his studies and what the definition of being a cosmologist is, he explains with an impish grin, “It’s a kind of religion for intelligent atheists.”
The couple first meets at a house party where Jane leaves Stephen her number on a napkin. What follows are a series of normal activities that ordinarily would be of little interest in viewing except that we know what’s in store for Stephen making the sight of a seemingly healthy young man engaged in boat rowing, playing pinball and having a pint down the pub with friends all the more engaging. There’s an odd sense of fascination watching a man doing the ordinary things of life while knowing that it will all soon be cruelly denied.
When out at night, sharing a quiet moment with each other, Jane and Stephen stare at the night sky and see different things. To Stephen, when looking at the stars, his logical mind takes him to the cosmos and to the scientific theories of the origins of time. To Jane, the sight is biblical, inspiring her not to think of milky ways or the infinite but the need to be poetic and quote passages from the book of Genesis. It’s a brief moment but it immediately underlines the difference between Stephen and Jane’s thinking and how they both see the world.
The first time we know something is wrong is when Stephen reaches out for a cup but can’t quite grab it and knocks it over. The student doesn’t give it a second thought and continues with what he’s doing. He later stumbles on the way to catch a train; he can’t always grab a pen off the floor; little things indicating to us that his body is failing, now at an accelerated rate until it finally happens. While rushing across Cambridge grounds he stumbles; his legs give beneath him and he collapses, his head hitting the concrete with a sickening crack.
The doctors diagnose Motor Neuron Disease – more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – and he’s given a two year life expectancy. “There’s nothing I can do for you,” the doctor explains. “Your brain won’t change. Your thoughts are unaffected, but no one will know what you’re thinking.” Before Stephen completely loses his ability to talk he tells Jane that their life together as a married couple will take an unimaginable toll on both their lives. “You don’t know what’s coming,” he tells her. “It will affect everything.”
At present time, Stephen Hawking is in his early seventies, indicating that the original diagnosis of having just two years was off by several decades. The film charts the conflicts and trials of a genius whose mind, like the universe he studies, continues to expand while his body falls apart. But he never seems to lose his self-deprecating wit as simple movements become monumental challenges. When the bed is moved from the second floor down into the kitchen he says, “Well, it’s convenient for breakfast.” And when he first gets to use that famous electronic voice activation system, he shoots around the house imitating a monstrous Dalek from TV’s Dr. Who exclaiming, “Exterminate! Exterminate!”
The comparisons with Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot are all but guaranteed, but what’s important here is that Redmayne’s performance should never be viewed in quite the same, Oscar-bait way you might immediately consider it to be. Watching the actor morph into the Stephen Hawking that we currently know is quite remarkable. But so too is Felicity Jones who helps us understand how a woman like Jane can handle such an overwhelming task. At a social dinner, Jane becomes her husband’s voice when explaining the difference between quantum theory and the theory of relativity. When Jane’s mother advises her daughter that she might want to join the church choir in order to get her mind away from her tireless devotion to her husband, Jane responds with, “I think that’s possibly the most English thing you’ve ever said.”
Unlike the title, one of the film’s failings is that it doesn’t quite explore the theory of everything. The studies, plus the eventual divorce – which by all accounts was quite contentious – are only lightly touched upon. If you didn’t already know of the divorce and how in 1995 Hawking married his nurse – they, too, divorced in 2006 – you won’t learn those details in this film. Plus, as The Theory of Everything is based on Jane’s second book Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen and not the angry 1999 Music to Move the Stars, there’s a feeling that a certain amount of cinematic airbrushing was involved.
However, even though a film based on how Jane originally experienced and felt about her marriage to a brilliant mind might have made for a more compelling, conflict-based drama, The Theory of Everything may not be quite the warts ‘n all bio-pic some readers were hoping for, the film still remains an unexpected triumph, held together by two outstanding leads who deserve the acclaim they will assuredly receive.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 123 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)