Movie review: ‘Theory of Everything’: Let’s get physics-cal
By Ed Symkus
More Content Now
Stephen Hawking has been an iconic figure for decades. You know him – the guy in the wheelchair, head tilted to one side, a slight smile of his face, a robotic voice generated by a computer, author of books on physics that most folks don’t understand … at all. We know who Stephen Hawking is, but until “The Theory of Everything,” and the book it was based on – “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen” – by his wife, Jane Hawking, we haven’t been privy to what makes him tick.
As this is as much about Jane (Felicity Jones) as it’s about Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and as much about their relationship as it’s about his complex theories, the film opens with them meeting. It was at Cambridge in 1963, where he referred to himself as a cosmologist who was looking for answers about the universe, and going for a PhD in physics. She was studying arts and poetry. They first catch each other’s eye at a school dance, and seem to be equally smitten – which is initially a bit odd for viewers since she’s gorgeous and he has more than a passing resemblance to Austin Powers.
But those are just the minor differences. She’s very religious, and he’s a scientist. As he explains it, scientists “don’t believe in a supernatural creator.” But they’re so gosh-darn cute together, it’s easy to accept that this is going to be a story of opposites happily attracting.
Tragedy, though, is waiting around a corner. Shortly after his mentor Professor Sciama (David Thewlis) brings Stephen to an old school lab where, he tells him, “Rutherford split the atom,” we first see a slight shake of Stephen’s hand, and then a small stumble of his foot. The filmmakers keep it subtle, but all the while the professor pushes him deeper into the mathematics of different theories, and he and Jane grow closer, and the camera keeps staring into his wide-eyed, wondering face, he’s slowly losing control of his body.
A visit to a doctor reveals it to be something that’s causing gradual muscle delay. It’s ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The doctor calmly and with no emotion explains to Stephen that the average life span after diagnosis is two years, then adds, with an air of hopeless defeat, “I’m so sorry.”
From that point on, no matter where this story goes, and it goes in some unexpected directions, the film belongs to Eddie Redmayne. It’s an Oscar nomination-worthy performance that’s amazing to watch but sometimes hard to take. The film gives us a great actor (check out “My Week with Marilyn”) who’s faced with the challenge of portraying a man who was terribly challenged, both physically and emotionally. Redmayne presents a Hawking who had to walk with two canes till he was confined to a wheelchair, who lost his real voice to a tracheotomy, who married the love of his life and became a father, and who kept on digging away at his work – earning his doctorate, proving a complex theory, realizing years later that he got it wrong and setting out to disprove it.
But remember, there’s Jane’s story to deal with. Felicity Jones (“The Invisible Woman”) has a smaller role in the film, but her acting is no less bravura. Because Stephen was totally dependent on others, but stubbornly tried for a “normal” life, Jane took on the task, giving up any chances of her own career, of realizing her own dreams.
She’s a woman who needs help, like Stephen, both physically and emotionally, and finally admits it to him. That help comes in the form of Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), a bereaved church choirmaster who becomes a de facto member of the family, and whose presence leads to the beginning of the film’s partial shift to melodrama. The shift continues with the introduction of a new assistant for Stephen, Elaine (Maxine Peake).
There are some flat moments, and there are some clichés, and there’s a dash of humor (fans of “Dr. Who” will enjoy a scene in which the practically immobile Hawking does a nice Dalek imitation by uttering the word “exterminate”). But there’s also a great deal of inspiration in the story, and there’s no doubt that the filmmakers, as well as their subjects, truly believe in the line of dialogue, “Where there is life, there is hope.”
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
Written by Anthony McCarten; directed by James Marsh
With Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, David Thewlis, Maxine Peake