Although The Theory of Everything is a biopic about Stephen Hawking, the English physicist known for his theorems on space singularities and his 1988 book A Brief History of Time, you would be wrong to see it under the assumption that his scientific research is at the heart of the plot. The film is essentially a love story, one in which the marriage between Hawking and his first wife, Jane, is explored and dramatized. When it comes to genre, I honestly don’t know if director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten were wise to not try and reinvent the wheel or just plain lazy. On the one hand, though based on real people and events, we’ve nevertheless seen movies like this before, where relationships are tested by opposing ideologies, the denial of emotional and physical needs, and illnesses and/or handicaps. On the other hand, there’s no denying that this is a winning formula, which is to say that the filmmakers are sticking with what works.
Of course, it helps when the casting is right and the performances are top notch. Taking the lead in The Theory of Everything is Eddie Redmayne who, after singing his heart out in the 2012 adaptation of Les Misérables, is now a likely shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for his spectacularly spot-on portrayal of Hawking. It couldn’t have been easy for Redmayne, having to sit in a wheelchair for hours upon hours day after day, his body unnaturally contorted, his face painfully scrunched up as he mimicked the effects of the motor neuron disease that robbed Hawking of his ability to move or speak. It must have been equally hard for him to convincingly depict his gradual physical decline, which begins with hand malfunctions, an awkward gait, clumsy stumbles, and speech so slurred and deliberately paced it’s borderline unintelligible.
The film’s conventional aspects are evident as early as the first scene, at which point it’s 1963 and Hawking is a PhD student at Cambridge, still in possession of his motor functions. At a party, he locks eyes with an art and Spanish literature student named Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), and as the saying goes, it was love at first sight; he nervously closes the distance between them and starts a conversation, which, in spite of her own nervousness, she’s definitely willing to take part in. We in the audience are fully aware that his bookish, gangly appearance is in stark contrast with her fresh-faced beauty. We’re also aware that isn’t the only way in which they’re starkly contrasted, he being an atheist and her being an Anglican, his field of study based on fact and reason while hers is based on interpretation and emotion. As another saying goes, opposites attract.
Convention dictates that Jane plunges into her romance with Hawking, despite being somewhat naïve. When Hawking is first diagnosed with his disease in his early twenties and told he has only two years to live, he sinks into a depression, refusing contact with anyone, Jane especially. This only strengthens her resolve to be with him, for she loves him, and she knows that he loves her. Despite warnings from his family – who understand right off the bat that his body will continue to deteriorate, which will in turn make caring for him increasingly demanding – she decides to marry him, believing that their love is stronger than any illness. Initially, Jane is patient, understanding, and nurturing, even with the extra burden of raising two young children. But as the years pass – during which Hawking’s body does indeed continue to deteriorate, requiring more care – she begins to feel the burden on her shoulders, to say absolutely nothing of the fact that he can be there for her emotionally, but not physically.
On the advice of her mother-in-law (Emily Watson), Jane decides to relieve some of her stress by joining the choir of a local church. It’s here she meets the head of the choir, Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox). Yes, he grows close to the Hawking family, becoming both a surrogate father to Jane’s children and a caregiver for Hawking himself, but more to the point, he develops feelings for Jane, and she develops feelings for him. In real life, Jane has stated that, in spite of their growing affection for one another, she and Jonathan kept their relationship platonic so as not to break up her family; in the film, the true status of their early relationship is kept somewhat ambiguous, and in one scene, there’s doubt over the paternity of Jane’s third child. It’s also left ambiguous, at least in the film, just how aware Hawking was of how Jane and Jonathan felt about one another. If he was fully aware, was he turning a blind eye? If so, out of what? Guilt for not having the physical wherewithal to please his wife?
The film is based directly on the real Jane’s autobiography Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, which certainly explains why Hawking’s personal life is more closely examined than his scientific career. This is a perfectly legitimate narrative approach, although I’m forced to wonder if there wasn’t a less conventional way for this story to be told. Yes, I know I’ve unreservedly recommended my fair share of romantic films, especially ones that have less going for them than The Theory of Everything. However, such film are typically fictional, and thus deserve, in my personal opinion, some latitude. This particular film, on the other hand, is based on a true story of a rather remarkable human being, so it stands to reason that it should have had that extra something special. Still, for what it is, it gets the job done. And there’s no denying the quality of Redmayne’s performance.