by Matt Levine
It’s hard to refute accusations that The Theory of Everything exemplifies the usual middlebrow Oscar-baiting sentimentality that starts cropping up around this time of the year—though at least in this case the film offers something besides a pretense of respectability. Based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, James Marsh’s film relies on a tailor-made prestige-drama background to craft an inspirational romantic melodrama. Like recent Oscar favorites The King’s Speech and Dallas Buyers Club, The Theory of Everything recounts a real-life biography set at some point in the past with a lead character confronting (and maybe overcoming) a physical or mental ailment. As for the scientific ideas and non-conformism that made its subject so renowned, the film mostly shrugs off Stephen Hawking’s importance as a cosmologist and physicist, focusing (for better and worse) on the story’s more maudlin elements.
Director: James Marsh
Producers: Tim Bevan, Lisa Bruce, Eric Fellner, Anthony McCarten
Writers: Anthony McCarten, Jake Wilde Hawking (book)
Cinematographer: Benoît Delhomme
Music: Jóhan Jóhannsson
Editor: Jinx Godfrey
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Harry Lloyd, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, Charlie Cox, Christian McCay, Enzo Cilenti, Maxine Peake
Premiere: September 7, 2014 — Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: November 7, 2014
US Distributor: Focus Features
We meet Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) in 1963, biking with a friend to their dorm at Cambridge, the camera whirring and speeding alongside of them. (The mobility here will be repeated later in the film, with Hawking confined to a wheelchair he enjoys racing wildly wherever he goes.) He’s the kind of savant student who can solve “impossible” astrophysics formulas in half the time of any of his colleagues, though this is all the movie really tells us about Hawking’s pre-Cambridge life. The story really begins when he meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) at a students’ ball complete with a carousel and fireworks, though in reality she was a friend of his sister’s. The Theory of Everything doesn’t just blur some of the backstory, it shuffles the chronology—for example, delaying the onset of his motor neuron disease until after he falls in love with Jane.
After he’s diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and given a time frame of two years to live, Hawking undergoes a depression that’s powerfully portrayed by Redmayne (who, I feel obligated to say, will inevitably get that Oscar nomination in a few months). He distances himself from Jane, assuming he’s sentencing her to two years of grueling medical care, but she tells him (and the audience) what we already know—it’s true love. Indeed, Jane stays by Stephen’s side for decades, assisting with his eating and breathing and supporting him through a pneumonia-induced coma, after which he receives a tracheotomy that steals his voice. Mostly, The Theory of Everything is a bittersweet romance that just happens to feature one of the greatest scientific minds of the modern era.
Even if the film simplifies and streamlines Hawking’s life story (as almost any screen biography does), it’s admirably sensitive to both Stephen and Jane, portraying their tumultuous but tender life together with undeniable power. Much of the credit goes to Redmayne and Jones, who both bring life and personality to their potentially clichéd characters. Redmayne’s physical transformation is overtly impressive, but more affecting are the little things: the perpetual twinkle in his eye or the heartbreaking look he gives his infant son as he lies immobile on the stairs, unable to move. Jones (The Invisible Woman) always lends subtlety to her characters, and the film deserves credit for making Jane a complex character with her own ambitions—far more than the saintly, infinitely patient caretaker she could have been. Especially insightful is a scene in which Stephen, Jane, and their two children visit Stephen’s parents, who have no idea how to deal with their son’s illness and seem rattled by Jane’s toughness.
Jane and Stephen’s metaphysical difference of opinion unfortunately simplifies much of Hawking’s science to the question of whether or not God exists—she’s a devout Christian who joins a church choir to reaffirm her faith while struggling with Stephen’s treatment; Stephen is initially an atheist and believes that the universe began with a black hole, not a divine creator. It’s an emphasis on Christian morality that leaves Hawking’s more metaphysical quandaries in its wake, which is especially unfortunate considering how fascinating and mind-bending Hawking’s theories of creation actually are. That being said, Jane’s religious faith is sensitively conveyed, especially with the introduction of Jonathan (Charlie Cox), the leader of Jane’s church choir. As Jonathan becomes a close friend of the family’s, assisting with Stephen’s treatment and providing support for Jane, they fall in love—a relationship that Stephen recognizes and supports (a quiet and heartbreaking moment). A scene in which the Hawking family visits the beach with Jonathan in tow—and particularly a tender image of the two men lying on a towel together—beautifully conveys the movie’s sensitivity, developing a close and unlikely friendship between the two men.
Much of the film is given a pristine sheen, filmed and edited with craftsmanship if little boldness. Even so, director James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim) knows when to embellish the visuals in an attempt to parallel Stephen’s extreme circumstances. Two traumatic episodes are especially effective: when Stephen first learns he has ALS, Marsh and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme use extremely shallow focus to distort the hospital hallways; and when he is rushed to the hospital after he lapses into a coma, the scene is filmed through rainy windshields bathed in harsh red light, lending everything a nightmarish glow. A climactic montage in which Stephen’s life is traced backwards (a sentimental echo of his scientific interest in the beginnings of time) is hampered by surprisingly sappy music by Jóhan Jóhannsson, but it remains powerful nonetheless, a reminder that life’s relative brevity should not be construed as insignificance or pointlessness.
That’s what ultimately matters with The Theory of Everything: it may be predictable Oscar bait, it may simplify Stephan Hawking’s career into an excuse for inspirational drama, but it’s also unabashedly humane and extremely well-made. It feels like a polished biography from Hollywood’s golden age, something like The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) or Lust for Life (1956)—poignant and entertaining, if hardly revolutionary. Well-acted, inspirational dramas are not uncommon in Hollywood (especially around this time of year), but The Theory of Everything is one of the few that sincerely celebrates what human achievement is able to accomplish. As Hawking says in a climactic speech that's filled with simple self-help platitudes (albeit with a dash of existentialism), we may simply be a speck of life in one of an infinite number of universes, with no kind of divine order to "explain" our world; but that speck of life can be something wondrous.