THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014)
Directed by James Marsh
Focus Features, PG-13, 123 minutes
* * * *
Let me start with a confession. Had I been in the producers’ room when writer Anthony McCarten pitched a script for a love story based on the life of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking I would have walked out muttering, “Are you freakin’ kidding me?” That’s one of the reasons I’m not a producer—that and the lack of tens of millions of dollars of gambling money. A bit like the film’s protagonist, The Theory of Everything succeeds despite the odds against it. To add to its improbable triumph, the film is skillfully (if a bit straight forwardly) directed by James Marsh, whose previous credits consist mostly of made-for-TV films, documentaries, and the offbeat Wisconsin Death Trip (1999).
The story begins at Cambridge University in 1963, where the brash and carefree Hawking (Tom Prior for young Stephen, then Eddie Redmayne) is making his mark through a combination of bluster and brilliance, the latter mostly half-baked until structured by don and mentor Professor Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis). Hawking is what you might expect of a physics geek—gawky, socially gauche, and prone to pretension. That begins to change when he meets future first wife Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) also brilliant, though a faithful Anglican studying Romance languages and literature. The sequence is chronological: courtship, early onset of ALS, marriage, care giving, family, fame, marital strain. By the time the Hawkings’ second (of three) children is born in 1970, their romance is unconventional to say the least. ALS is a horrendous degenerative disease that renders its victims increasingly unable to control basic motor functions such as walking, writing, speaking, or swallowing. Most stricken with ALS suffer their first symptoms when they are older than 50 and most pass within three years—remarkably, Hawking (72) has now lived with ALS for 50 years.
The Theory of Everything references Hawking’s desire to explain the beginning of the Universe. As such, the film touches upon his theories of singularity, black holes, radiation, and gravitational singularity. Hawking is renowned for his marriage of Einstein’s general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. But don’t worry—you won’t need a Ph.D. in physics to get any of this. One of the film’s virtues is rendering complex scientific ideas in lay terms. Plus, the key to Hawking’s thought centers on how he factored time into his equations. Time, in fact, is an un-credited actor in this film. If the Big Bang created the Universe, the mechanics and mathematics of time suggest it will end much the same way. But this film is about the microcosm not the macro, and we watch as Stephen’s relationship with Jane moves more toward a final whimper, not a massive explosion even though the disintegrating impact of Stephen’s illness appears as an inevitable arc. In like fashion, Jane’s romance with good-hearted Jonathan Hellyer-Jones (Charlie Cox) and Stephen’s for caregiver (and second wife) Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) unfold languidly in ways that parallel Hawking’s doubts about his earlier conclusions about the Big Bang. The film’s wonderful ending sequence similarly makes us rethink how time unfolds.
All of this is to say that The Theory of Everything is a romance, not a science film. At times you’ll wonder if the Universe is lubricated with schmaltz, but luckily these excesses are few in number. Mostly we muse upon the age-old question of what any of us would do for love, and the film certainly takes some of heroic/angelic luster from Hawking. His disease is to be pitied, but not his bouts of superciliousness, his egoism, or his horn-dog Hustler-induced love of pornography. The film is very well acted. Critics have, of course, praised Redmayne’s performance and he rightly deserves props for the sheer physicality of portraying a man who is losing his own. In my view, though, Ms. Jones gives a superior performance as she must convince us she is a simmering volcano that will not allow herself to explode. As in all British productions, all the secondary and minor characters are filled by skilled actors rather than shiny faces. Special praise goes to Thewlis, a much underappreciated actor, and to Cox, who plays the man-in-waiting to hangdog perfection.
Just so you know, this is another “based on a true story” tale that isn’t literally true. Jane, for instance, did not abandon her career to be Stephen’s nurse; she lived in London during the week, finished her Ph.D., and is now a professor. Nor did Hawking find his soul mate in Mason—the two quietly divorced in 2006. Take this film for what it is—a romance that, even when it goes over the top, makes us contemplate love as more than swelling music and unalloyed bliss. –Rob Weir