Don’t go in to The Theory of Everything expecting a lot of science; while this is a movie about Stephen Hawking, it a movie about Stephen Hawking the man for more than Stephen Hawking the physicist. There are some obligatory mentions of his groundbreaking work, but mostly this is a movie that focuses on his relationship with Jane Wilde and his struggle with motor neuron disease. That’s mostly good news for me – we all know talk of black holes makes my head hurt – but if you are expecting to have some deep scientific debate after seeing The Theory of Everything, you will be sorely disappointed.
It wasn’t until I was in the theater that I realized how very little that I actually know about Stephen Hawking; my knowledge of him is limited to the basics: he’s brilliant, he suffers from ALS, and he communicates through a computer generated voice. That’s about it. Once in my younger years when I was more ambitious, I tried reading one of Hawking’s books – probably A Brief History of Time. I didn’t get very far into it before I realized that this wasn’t for me and gave up. Thus ended my brief flirtation with anything Hawking related; beyond an occasional joke about him on The Big Bang Theory, he isn’t someone that I spend a lot of time thinking about. I respect his work, but I know my own limitations and leave discussions of him and his research to the more science-y inclined among us.
Thankfully, you don’t need to know a lick about Hawking or his life’s work to enjoy The Theory of Everything; you don’t even have to like science. Instead, the primary thrust of the movie are two events that would have a lasting impact on Hawking: his diagnosis of motor neuron disease at age 22 and the day he meets fellow student Jane Wilde. Without the latter, the former may have surely derailed his scientific career and his legendary theories of space and time. The Theory of Everything may be marketed as “the Stephen Hawking movie,” but this film is just as much about Jane and her pivotal role in his life.
When the film begins Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) is a young PhD student at Cambridge University; he’s a little socially awkward, but he’s also brilliant. At a party one night, he happens upon fellow academic Jane (Felicity Jones) and the two are instantly smitten with each other. A romance blooms, but shortly after their courtship begins Hawkins takes a fall on campus which leads to his diagnosis of ALS. The doctors only give Stephen two years to live and, despondent, he pushes everyone away from him, including Jane. Jane will not be pushed aside so easily and encourages him to make the most of whatever time he has left. As his body slowly deteriorates, Jane becomes his primary caregiver and supports his continued academic research. The Theory of Everything is as much a romantic drama as it is a biography; the less you know about Stephen and Jane, the more I think you’ll enjoy the film. Romantic dramas are not necessarily my cup of tea, but since I was unfamiliar with the characters I wound up enjoying the film more than I would have predicted.
The main reasons that I enjoyed The Theory of Everything are the two excellent performances that anchor the film. I was familiar with Eddie Redmayne’s previous work in My Week with Marilyn and Les Misérables, but I had no idea that he was capable of this kind of performance. Redmayne does an amazing job with transforming into Hawking and depicting the gradual destruction of his body from the ravages of ALS. For the last part of the film, Redmayne can’t speak and must use his face to convey the emotion that the computer generated voice cannot. It’s a startling depiction and you occasionally have to remind yourself that this is an able-bodied actor giving this performance. It’s truly mesmerizing to watch.
While Redmayne has the flashier of the two roles, Felicity Jones is also a powerhouse as Jane. She is an equal partner in this film and though Jane requires a quieter and more restrained performance, Jones does a beautiful job and helps center the film. Here is a woman who desperately loves a man, but she is also asked to put her life on hold to care for him as he becomes more and more helpless. It’s a taxing proposition and Jones gracefully depicts Jane’s conflict over her situation. The relationship of Stephen and Jane is not an easy one and Redmayne and Jones navigate all the bumps beautifully; I think one reason that I liked The Theory of Everything is that it is not a perfect love story. The film does not romanticize their relationship fully and does not ignore the flaws in their union. It’s not as brutally honest as a film like Blue Valentine, but it is still a far more measured look at a relationship that I would have expected.
The Theory of Everything does have some problems; while the events in the latter half of the film may have unfolded in such a way, it did feel a little clichéd and rushed in some parts. For example, Stephen’s behavior in the last act was a bit unexpected, as there was no indication that he had felt that way earlier in the film. I would have liked the story to dig a little deeper; as much as enjoyed the performances there were moments when I thought that this could have been a high-end Lifetime movie. While the film does deal with the conflict in their relationship, it is mostly sanitized and presented in the most flattering light for both characters. I didn’t necessarily need a warts and all look at their relationship, but you can’t help but think that this has all be whitewashed a bit to be done in the least objectionable manner. I think the screenwriters could have let things get a bit messier – the actors were more than able to handle more nuanced depictions and the end result would have been a movie that felt more real. As much as I was charmed by the work that Redmayne and Jones did, I was also always aware that I was watching a biopic. A little less suds and a little more realism and this movie could have been outstanding. A standing ovation toward the end of the film felt completely unearned and overly sentimental.
Despite the limitations of the screenwriting, The Theory of Everything is worth seeing for the excellent work done by its two lead actors. I don’t know if either will be considered come Oscar season, but both Redmayne and Jones turn in outstanding performances that they should be proud of. Redmayne’s physical transformation is impressive and Jones’ ability to accurately capture Jane’s inner conflict will be familiar to any caregiver. It may not be a perfect examination of Stephen and Jane’s relationship, but it was interesting enough to keep me generally entertained throughout the film. And I can no longer say that I don’t know very much about Stephen Hawking; I still may not understand his research, but I have a better idea of his life and the people that surrounded him. For a romantic drama, that’s not half bad.
The Theory of Everything opens nationwide tomorrow.