The Theory of Everything (2014)
The Theory of Everything is certainly not an art film. If one blinks through one’s tears and awe, it’s probably not even one of the best movies of the year. But it is surely destined to be one of the best remembered, and most loved. It’s popular, but with class. It sells itself: it’s sweet, it’s touching — and, if not altogether realistic, it’s smart; its main character, anyway, is one of the great minds of the century.
This is the story of the genius, breadth of vision, and unparalleled determination and courage of Stephen Hawking, next to a woman who stuck with him, Jane Hawking, née Wilde, on whose memoir, Travelling to Infinity, the excellent documentary filmmaker James Marsh’s feature is based. First of all this is a love story, if a rather special one.
But most of all, this is where the hitherto appealing and promising young (33-year-old) English actor Eddie Redmayne (himself an Eton and Oxford graduate) comes into his own and then some, giving the physical and emotional performance of the year, worthy of comparison with Daniel Day Lewis’ in My Left Foot (and a lot more appealing). As a tribute, Hawking himself said after watching the film that at times “I thought it was me.” He might well wish so: Redmanye’s Hawking is better looking and by reports a good deal nicer.
Anyway, Redmayne’s reproduction of the progressive degeneration of Hawking’s motor functions is uncanny, and mechanically brilliant. On top of it is a charm, wit and good humour that are not inappropriate. Hawking was always a fun party person and quick-witted jokester, and today at 72, Redmayne has said, after meeting him, there is still a twinkle in his eye. As for Redmanye, it’s most accurate to say his is a great performance in a good movie.
The story is Jane’s, if a buffed version of it, and so begins essentially with the couple’s meeting at an Cambridge party (Jane is played by the stalwart, if unexciting Felicity Jones). The film’s early scenes are charming with the polite reticence of Fifties England, which makes the way the pair are immediately smitten the more touching. They both come from St. Albans, but navigate other differences. She’s in lit, focused on Spanish medieval poetry and a devout C of A Christian. He’s an atheist and a budding cosmologist, which he explains to her as someone who works out a “theory of everything.” The two go to a dance and fall in love: note the adorable little multi-coloured car he brings to pick her up in, one of many small period touches that adorn the early sequences. Scenes show the lazy but super-smart Stephen, who studied about an hour a day while at Oxford, where he was a cox on the rowing team, and hardly more at Cambridge, moving high in the estimation of the leading Cambridge physicist mentor Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis, grown cuddly), but beginning to stumble and drop things. Then he falls, hard, on his face, is tested, and is diagnosed with motor neurone disease (Lou Gehrig’s disease, now, but not then, known as ALS), and given two years to live. He was to defy that prediction to an extraordinary extent.
Another touching moment of period British reticence and niceness comes when Stephen, deeply depressed, tells his roommate Brian, a composite character (Harry Lloyd) of his diagnosis. This is almost the only time the wide toothy grin disappears from Eddie Redmanye’s face. Needless to say, but we repeat, he is cuter and the Stephen Hawking of the film gentler and sweeter than the original. But again, the party animal, the lazy student, and the ready wit are accurate. Reports are that being crew coxswain at Oxford had made him become “a popular member of the ‘in crowd’.” Despite Stephen’s depression, Jane refuses to be sent away and insists that she loves him and will stick by him (the chronology of all this is switched around a bit from real life to enhance the drama). They are married, in a scene closely copied from actual Hawking wedding pictures, with Stephen in formal wedding clothes clutching Jane’s hand in one hand and a cane in the other.
And here is where Redmayne’s physical mimicry really kicks in as he does the strange walk, the curled hands and the slump, the struggle up and down stairs, the first fall into a “provisional” wheelchair, the progressively declining ability to speak. In an almost iconic sequence, Stephen walks on his own with two canes to defend his Ph.D. thesis, and stands for its uneven but finally triumphant acceptance. The ideas are simplified for us. But years later, though Jane doesn’t switch over to science, we find her explaining the mutations in his concepts.
An essential turning point in the biography comes on Stephen’s trip to CERN, in Switzerland, in 1985, when he falls ill with pneumonia and he can only be kept alive and allowed to return home by having a tracheotomy, which Jane fights for (no high marks for the the pessimistic medical profession here). Here Eddie Redmayne’s remarkable imitation of Hawking’s increasingly hard-to-follow speech can end, because Stephen can no longer speak at all. At first, he’s given a board of coded letters to communicate with by blinking an eye and he refuses. This is the point at which Marsh’s film and Julian Schnabel’s memorable The Diving Bell and the Butterfly briefly but perfectly overlap. As we all know, the computer-driven speech system Hawking’s associated with soon arrives, which, as need not be said in the film, makes him easier to understand than he had been for many years. It’s perhaps inevitable that the story of the world famous disabled cosmologist begins to overwhelm the love story, without including much of a taste of his ideas.
Nonetheless one doesn’t want to fall into the convention of calling this a “biopic.” Of course it has “biopic” elements, but it is a romance, and the memoir of a marriage, a double study in courage. It need not be explained, though some of this may be clearer in the 1991 documentary A Brief History of Time, by another great documentary filmmaker, Errol Morris, but clearly the motor neurone disease diagnosis led to a variation on Samuel Johnson’s famous saying, “The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully.” Thinking he had two years to live, Stephen set out to prove mathematically the black hole theory of his thesis, and went on and on with his bold thinking.
Errol Morris’ documentary combined an exposition of Stephen Hawking’s 1988 book, a bestseller that made him internationally famous, with the story of his life. The Theory of Everything is more about how Stephen’s disease, his growing fame, and raising their three children made life complicated for his wife, till she became strongly attracted to a male friend, Jonathan (Charlie Cox), a recent widower and her choir director, who helps care for Stephen and whose constant presence makes Stephen’s parents wrongly suspect he fathered the Hawkings’ third child, Timothy. Then we watch as an especially strong and enthusiastic female caretaker, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) wins Stephen’s affections, he left Jane, and in 1995, Jane and Stephen are divorced. A famous man’s biopic doesn’t end with his divorce, but this one almost does, also of course leaving us when its very famous subject is still very much alive, having lived almost 48 years longer then he was expected to by doctors. Perhaps the man himself is and was more of a prick and a narcissist than he appears in James Marsh’s film and Eddie Redmayne’s winning, bravura performance, but one’s left not inappropriately with the sense of a man of extraordinary determination who’s also a very great thinker and writer.
The Theory of Everything, 123 mins., debuted at Toronto, where its popular appeal was immediately signalled by an explosion of enthusiastic Tweets. Various other festivals. Limited US theatrical release 7 November 2014. Watched for this review at a public screening at Landmark Embarcadero Cinemas, San Francisco, 21 November 2014, one week after its NorCal release. It was released in UK cinemas on 1 January 2015.
DIRECTOR: JAMES MARSH
WRITERS: ANTHONY MCCARTEN (SCREENPLAY), JANE HAWKING (BOOK)
STARS: EDDIE REDMAYNE, FELICITY JONES, TOM PRIOR
RUNTIME: 123 MINS