There’s not much science in the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, despite a title that suggests some sort of omnibus training manual for people who habitually wear lab coats.
You’ve got to look elsewhere for that, but even documentary film seems to avoid the egghead aspect of the acclaimed theoretical physicist’s incredible life journey. Last year’s doc Hawking: The Remarkable Story of a Beautiful Mind covered even more personal ground (including the man’s rather messy romantic life) than this one does, making it seem at times more like a tabloid TV exposé.
Nor would you want it any other way, really. As Christopher Nolan demonstrates all too readily in another of this week’s prestige openers, the sci-fi adventure Interstellar, it’s very hard to make gripping cinema out of the mathematical equations and metaphysics that Hawking brought to the printed page, in the global bestseller A Brief History of Time.
Theory director James Marsh is actually best known for his docs (he did the lauded Man on Wire and Project Nim), but here he’s determined to string Cupid’s love bow and buff Oscar’s golden bod rather than win any kudos for scientific accuracy.
He succeeds quite nicely on both counts. Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have chosen to elegantly adapt the memoir of ex-wife Jane Hawking, whose Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen concerns itself mainly with the quarter century the two were together, a union that produced three children and worldwide attention.
Another pair is worthy of attention at this point: Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, who play Stephen and Jane in the film. It’s largely due to their sensitive and fully committed portrayals that Theory succeeds more than just in theory, illuminating the love and friction of a couple tested by extraordinary circumstances.
Especially Redmayne, as he graphically demonstrates the advance of the motor neuron dysfunction known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which seems to follows in lockstep with Hawking as he makes one celebrated advance after another in understanding the mysteries of black holes, the universe and, well, everything. Among the Oscar nominations that The Theory of Everything will attract, from Best Picture on down, a Best Actor nod for Redmayne is the one absolute certainty.
All of this is presented as a romantic nerd’s version of love and marriage, beginning in 1963 when they were graduate students at Cambridge, where he was studying cosmology and she was studying literature. Awkward Stephen courts refined Jane in scenes so golden, captured by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, it’s as if they were dipped in honey.
Despite Stephen’s agnostic doubts about “the whole celestial dictator premise” and Jane’s determination to live a Christian life (she quotes Genesis to him just before their first kiss), they’re soon dancing together on a bridge that may have been lit and decorated by angels.
A fateful doctor’s visit yields a diagnosis that will change their lives: Stephen is told (inaccurately, as it turned out) that he has just two years left to live. He nobly urges Jane to abandon him because “you don't know what's coming; it will affect everything.”
She instead chooses to marry him and stand by his side, as he increasingly becomes more famous and his body becomes more dependent on technological and human assistance.
The rest of their story together is well known, including the marital and life stresses that led Jane to choose another partner (a choir director played by Charlie Cox) and for Stephen to ultimately do the same.
It’s all covered in the film, glossing over the seamier aspects of it (Stephen’s new marriage was a fractious one, attracting both police and headlines).
Marsh does offer up some telling moments, including one where Stephen tries to assure Jane that they’re just a normal family, and she counters by pointing out they’re anything but normal, as the presence of 24/7 nurses and assistants attests.
As for science, well, you get things like Stephen’s “Eureka!” moment where he’s looking through the holes of a sweater. He spots burning embers in a fireplace, and suddenly concocts his theory of how black holes work.
This is sheer poppycock, of course, but it makes for fine drama, and that’s all Cupid and Oscar care about.