Movie Review: The Theory of Everything
The Theory of Everything, a 2014 film directed by James Marsh, is a beautiful and inspiring biopic that charts the life of brilliant theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his relationships with his work, his wife Jane Wilde and the universe. It is an inspiring story of love, passion, devotion and determination. The film is based on Jane’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, and a main focus of the film is Hawking’s marriage and interpersonal relationships. Based on the fact that the script is based on Jane’s memoir, it makes sense that a bulk of the film focuses on these relationships. Nonetheless, someone who goes to see The Theory of Everything to learn about the life of the illustrious Stephen Hawking will not leave slighted.
Early in the film, Jane (Felicity Jones) and Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) meet as fellow students at Cambridge and soon fall in love. The film charts their courtship, marriage and eventual divorce. Although based on a memoir of the relationship from Jane’s perspective, and therefore, at its base, a love story—a large part of the film focusing on their personal struggles and marriage—the film is much deeper than that, and also highlights Hawking’s achievements, brilliance and passion for science.
Redmayne does an incredible job of channeling Hawking, capturing his mannerisms and the intelligence and wit he is famous for. The sets and scenery are perfect; beautiful, but not highlighted or overshadowing the plot. Marsh does a great job of making the incredibly complex scientific theories understandable to the audience and even incorporating them into the beauty of the film. Stephen explains his groundbreaking theory of a universal time singularity, the idea that the universe originated at a single point—commonly known as The Big Bang—inspired by his study of black holes, as creamer representing the cosmos swirls artistically in a cup of coffee. Felicity Jones does a great job playing his wife, supportive and loving while at the same time dealing with the challenges of being Hawking’s mythological Atlas, shouldering the ever-increasing burden of his physical limitations and refusal to accept assistance.
The film opens with a wheelchair-bound Hawking meeting the queen in Buckingham Palace, and quickly fades to a young and vigorous Hawking racing a classmate through the cobbled streets of Cambridge. Even when healthy, Redmayne portrays Stephen as a clumsy, bookish student; lovable, but awkward. He is well-liked, witty and daring; a coxswain on the university’s rowing team. From the start, Stephen is not the most graceful of characters, and therefore the audience slowly realizes that his physical health is declining just as he does. The audience watches Stephen’s health subtly deteriorate: crooked numbers on a blackboard, a misstep in a metro station, a spilled cup of coffee in a cramped dorm room. However, Stephen himself does not notice the changes until he trips and falls, his glasses shattering on the pavement. Hawking awakes in a hospital, where a doctor gravely informs him that he has a degenerative neurological disorder and only two years to live. He immediately asks if his brain will be affected, and is reassured that it will not be.
After hearing his diagnosis, Stephen falls into depression and refuses to leave his room, but—as her role would be throughout the film—Jane refuses to accept his diagnosis and forces him to return to life, motivating him and inspiring him, assuring him she will shoulder whatever burden she must for him to succeed. Redmayne does an excellent job of portraying Stephen’s frustrations and cynicism, often relapsing into despair and reverting to the obstinate, depressed self that gave up hope after receiving the grim diagnosis, revealing his inability to accept his handicap, and every time, Jane is there to push him on and to accept a greater burden, and be the supportive wife her genius husband needs. Yet, Stephen’s true love is science, and it seems that this passion is what keeps Stephen going even when he can no longer move or talk. When he first learns of his illness and is told he only has a short time to live, he hears “The weight of science is against you,” but as the film progresses and Stephen outlives his prognosis (still alive today at the age of 72), it becomes apparent that the weight of science, along with his intellectual curiosity and brilliance, was the very thing spurring him on. While his physical health withers, his scientific genius comes alive and blossoms. The film is about Hawking’s struggle to balance the two greatest loves of his life, his wife and his curiosity to discover how the universe works, both made unbearably difficult by his disease and limitations, his marriage eventually unraveling when he chooses the latter.
The second half of the film deals with Jane’s and Stephen’s marriage, detailing the continually renewed struggles of his deteriorating physical condition backlit by his intellectual determination and success. The Theory of Everything tells a story of love and struggle in a believable way, in which only a true story can. There is no happy ending in the classic sense of the term, but neither is the film depressing. Even as their marriage deteriorates and both Jane and Stephen find solace in new relationships, they remain close friends, raising three children. Jane never completely withdraws the support she promised him in the beginning of the film.
A large part of the film deals with Jane’s relationship with a family friend, Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), who offers both emotional and physical support to both Jane and Stephen. Jane develops romantic feelings for John and the pair eventually marries, after Stephen and she divorce. March was tasked with tastefully and respectfully depicting Jane’s affair with John, no small task, but at times the audience feels that the conflict is sugarcoated and left intentionally ambiguous. Too large a portion of the plot is dedicated to this relationship for ambiguity’s sake, and the audience feels that some of the depth of the relationship is lost, and at times, that the two relationships are depicted separately instead of intricately and inseparably interconnected. Perhaps, given considerations of tact and taste, the relationship between John, Jane and Stephen should have filled a smaller role.
All in all, the film really helps the audience relate to Stephen, giving humanity to a character we all associate with brilliant esoteric theories and a mechanical voice, and taking Dr. Hawking out of his wheelchair. The film leaves its watchers sympathetic to the hardships that Hawking and—in no small part—his wife, Jane, endured, yet also optimistic and confident in the power of human determination and achievement.