By Kyle G. King. The Theory of Everything, a new film by director James Marsh, spends little time listing Professor Stephen Hawking’s monumental contributions to the scientific community. His precedential theories pertaining to the creation, lifespan, and destruction of black holes, gravitational singularity, and quantum mechanics and its correlation to general relativity would likely sound like another language to most looking for a thoughtful romantic film anyway, and so the film rightfully places its focus on the British physicist’s debilitating progression with motor neuron disease, as well as a keen eye on the complicated marriage to his first wife, Jane Wilde.
After adapting the work from Jane Wilde’s own memoir, Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, it took screenwriter Anthony McCarten 10 years to finally see his screenplay on the big screen. But if you’re expecting (and possibly craving) a formulaic biopic about Professor Hawking, you’ll be doing yourself and the movie a disservice. The Theory of Everything never betrays its memoir framework (for instance, it’s not hidden that Jane Wilde crafted this story), and you get nearly as much time spent with Ms. Wilde (Felicity Jones) as you do with the man himself (Eddie Redmayne).
The film begins and continues with a deliberately stylized cinematography. The first images we see are not fully in focus; they’re dusty blurs of shapes floating into each other. It’s a figuratively and literally nebulous beginning for the birth of the film and its story. Other ideas carry into the rest of the movie as well: one prominent motif is the image of Stephen Hawking as we know him now, bound to his motorized wheelchair, tooling around the lobby of Buckingham Palace; he’s playing, his spirits are high and as a honorable nod to Hawking’s spirit itself, the film never lets him fall too far from the twirling Stephen Hawking at its genesis.
We are then taken thirty years back in time to 1969, when Stephen Hawking walked, talked, rode bikes, and first attended the University of Cambridge. It is important to note that the very notion of time itself plays an extremely pivotal theme throughout the entire film, as it did within Hawking’s life and scientific career. Spending those first few moments with him in Buckingham Palace before jumping back to Cambridge sets the film’s spotlight on time, its fluidity, and its relation to the story.
Life at Cambridge University during the 1960s is as storybook sophisticated as you’d might expect: a 20 year-old Hawking finds himself surrounded by well-attired parties, acerbic professors, and virile rowing teams, all there to properly warm you to the wealthy charm in the South of England, and at one particularly chic soiree Hawking meets a shy arts major named Jane Wilde. Felicity Jones charms with the warmest of smiles and the smallest of gestures, all of which are key early on; later in the film the script demands much more trust and investment in her when Hawking becomes more dependent on the people around him.
Eddie Redmayne conveys subtle flourishes with his interpretation of the college-aged pre-MND Stephen Hawking. The way Redmayne gawkily moves, walks, and gestures his body doesn’t simply foreshadow Hawking’s plight, but rather pays respect to the struggle we know is coming. Redmayne performance doesn’t aim for pity, instead he offers vulnerability and remarkable courage, all important to consider while the man’s situation deteriorates. Small character traits – glasses rest crookedly, a necktie isn’t knotted cleanly – eventually become very controlled, contorted and upended by Redmayne’s steadfast dedication to the character. This attention to detail makes Hawking’s uncomfortable journey towards immobility that much more vital.
Once given the news of his impending death sentence (“… your thoughts won’t change – it’s just… eventually no one will know what they are…”), Stephen is devastated and sinks into an isolated depression. Redmayne seems to flick a switch inside of him in an instant, and when we need to buy the lack of fairness in Hawking’s life, he sells it. Anybody can throw a chair in abject frustration, but what really resonates with Redmayne (and by proxy, Hawking) is the tender honesty on display afterwards. Everything we need to know is found his eyes, his smile, and his posture: why Stephen behaves the way he does and how he feels about himself is found within Redmayne’s performance. Here, Hawking never appears childish or immature; he’s merely a product of what the universe has conditioned upon him. Redmayne effectively offers us empathy – not just sympathy – and that makes us want to throw chairs with Stephen too.
So too does Redmayne perform brilliantly once he’s confined to Hawking’s iconic wheelchair and deprived the privilege of proper dialogue. As Stephen finds speaking more difficult, Redmayne does not pull any punches. He lets the condition of Stephen Hawking speak honestly through him, evoking a powerfully active brain tangled in disrupted neurons just behind his eyes. James Marsh allows his film to get dirtier; he doesn’t shy away when things become more difficult for Stephen and Jane. Those hardships make their triumphs of spirit that much grander. Their relationship isn’t shown as one of passion or even lust, but of understanding and compassion: Jane very much cares for and tends to Stephen’s needs, but here she is much more than a surrogate nurse. Marsh stays true to Wilde’s memoirs and wisely spends crucial time with Jones to shed further perspective on the entire saga.
The Theory of Everything dreamily manipulates time with a handful of cosmic montages, as well as stellar performances (and a top-notch makeup department). By the time Hawking’s purported death sentence is brought up for a second time, we’ve all but forgotten about it, and through the film’s story you have denied and transcended time itself. Beyond all else, The Theory of Everything is carried by the performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. There are certainly some scenes of indulgent cheesiness (and hyper-Britishness), but nothing shakes away the charm and emotions you need for the film’s inspirational climax and ending.
It’s always difficult to judge which is superior: the movie or the book. The Theory of Everything doesn’t leave you pondering the quality between the film and its source material, instead it prefers to engage you with a marriage of people and science. The movie spends little time explaining Hawking’s scientific theories and instead fascinates you with the man who can explain them. You’ll more likely find yourself reaching for Hawking’s A Brief History of Time over Wilde’s own personal memoirs, eager to discover what could possibly enthrall the life and soul of such an inspiring man.