James Marsh is a commendable documentary filmmaker. His Man On Wire won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2008, mostly because it understood that the film’s star, Phillippe Petit, was the sole focus. With The Theory of Everything, Marsh tackles the assembly line Oscar sub-genre of the biopic. His subject is the brilliant, disabled physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane. Marsh’s treatment of Hawking’s story is sweet and tender, but told without complication. While telling the story of the man who wrote A Brief History of Time, Marsh blazes through long passages in Stephen and Jane’s story so that all we really get is a brief history of a marriage. The Hawking story comes with inherent drama, with Stephen’s affliction of ALS at a very young age. We all have the image of Stephen Hawking in his wheelchair, his shoulders contorted and his face dragging slightly to the side. The Theory of Everything is also the story of Stephen’s slow, arduous journey from an able-bodied physics student to the chair-bound, computer-voiced man we know today. But Marsh does well never to truly victimize Stephen Hawking, and that is the film’s best quality; it knows that Stephen Hawking had a hell of a life in more ways than one.
Stephen Hawking is played by Eddie Redmayne, the striking, untraditionally handsome English actor, who does a fine job here not trying to reproduce Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. His recreation of Hawking is mostly physical, and that physicality really limits what he can do as an actor, but he still manages to create a full image of the brilliant scientist and his refusal to be a pity case in his health situation. Jane Hawking is played by Felicity Jones, who is herself traditionally beautiful, but has spent the last few years trying to make a name for herself beyond her beauty. It was only last year that she was in Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman where she also played the hapless lover to a complicated genius, Charles Dickens, so maybe this type of role has something that really calls to her. That aside, it’s her performance that really drives Theory of Everything. Like Redmayne, the role is so constricting. The script does not give her many emotions to play outside of saintliness and guilt, but Jones does well to hit the notes perfectly without making obvious the redundant nature of the character. It’s Jane who is forced to be a mother and a nurse, and it is she who must sacrifice her own ambitions (she hoped to study Medieval poetry) while Stephen’s fame only grows. That she’s able to make this character truly fascinating is a testament to the performance.
At the film’s open, a young Stephen goes to a party near his college of Oxford where he meets Jane, the two of them both abandoned by friends. Stephen doesn’t dance but the two share a long conversation on the staircase. She gives him her phone number and Stephen stares at it harshly as if it’s a mathematical equation that he has to solve. Stephen invites her to dinner with his family and she accepts his invite to escort him to the May Ball, where the two share their first kiss on a brightly lit bridge in full view of the beautiful stars. In school, Stephen is the envy of his friend and fellow physics student, Brian (Harry Lloyd), and a nuisance to his professor, Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis), who recognizes Stephen’s one-of-a-kind brilliance but is perturbed with the young student’s lack of drive. Stephen notices issues with his hands and his legs here and there, but when he collapses face first onto the pavement of the Oxford sidewalk, he’s finally told by a doctor that he has a motor neuron disease which will slowly kill the signals that the brain sends to the body’s muscles. “What about the brain?” Stephen asks. The doctor coldly remarks that his thoughts won’t be effected except that people will no longer know what they are. He’s given a sentence of two years to live. Stephen takes his diagnosis strictly and decides he must work on his thesis before he meets his end.
This does not stop Jane from wanting to see Stephen, but Stephen refuses to be visited in his near vegetative state. In a moment of great strength, Jane refuses to leave Stephen and claims to him and his father that she is a lot stronger than her outward appearance may suggest. Cue the film’s first of many montages comprising weddings and child births and family vacations. Marsh tells Hawking’s story so tidily, it reminded me of last year’s Dallas Buyers Club where the story of Ron Woodruff was told so standardly that it betrayed the status of a much more sinister man. Of course, Stephen Hawking’s rise to prominence is not filled with nearly as much self-serving braggadocio as Woodruff’s was, so Theory of Everything is a lot easier to stomach. But it’s hard for me to ignore that the marriage between these two mentally tough people had to be more complicated than the hackneyed biopic format would suggest. Marsh is a competent filmmaker, but this film has a level of emotional manipulation that seems unnecessary, no doubt aided by the overwrought score by Jóhann Jóhannsson which tells you exactly the moment when you need to cry, in case you weren’t sure. Marsh uses Hawking’s theories of time to find visual images in spirals, whether it be staircases or milk swirling in tea, and it even allows him to play the film’s highlights in reverse before the end credits.
This is an actor’s movie, and the movie flourishes when Marsh takes a back seat to Redmayne and Jones. Halfway through, the story of the Hawkings becomes interesting when Jane, flustered by the many hats she has to wear to be Stephen Hawking’s wife, decides to join the church choir (her strong religious beliefs always being at odds with Stephen’s blunt atheism) and she meets the choir director, Jonathan (Charlie Cox). A widower, Jonathan’s loneliness leads him to the Hawking family, where he volunteers to help Jane with the day-to-day trifles of taking care of both Stephen and their three children. When feelings arise between Jonathan and Jane, Stephen does not fret, and he all but gives consent for his wife to consummate her inner urges. When Stephen’s condition worsens considerably, Jonathan steps away. Stephen, losing his ability to speak, now must speak through a computerized voice machine which allows him to communicate robotic voice. It’s at this time that Jane hires the nurse Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) to work with Stephen and ease her burden. Hawking famously left Jane to marry Elaine, and like a lot of the film, the split between Jane and Stephen is presented in a way that’s much too casual to believe as actual fact. But the scene between Redmayne and Jones is heartbreaking and the actors brilliantly portray the stirring end of a marriage without demonizing either characters with their infidelities.
The Theory of Everything is going to be a major Oscar contender come early next year, and Redmayne and Jones will probably be good bets to win as it stands now. It’s obvious campaign for awards has already made the film a villain on the internet, but that’s besides the point. Theory of Everything is shameless awards bait, but it still keeps most of its dignity because the actors are so good. Redmayne and Jones will get all the attention but Charlie Cox, as a man whose generosity is stretched to its limits, plays his role of Jonathan perfectly. There are a lot of other things you can watch about Stephen Hawking – including Errol Morris’ documentary A Brief History of Time and even his own cameo on The Simpsons which he voiced himself – which will probably give you a less dry-cleaned version of his story. This isn’t exactly a movie about Stephen Hawking as it is about a marriage. It is, after all, based on Jane’s memoirs, not Stephen’s. Considering that we also have Gone Girl still swirling around theaters, Theory of Everything‘s take on the “holy” institution of marriage is incredibly optimistic by comparison. It’s hard to take Marsh’s overwrought romanticizing of their marriage seriously, when you consider how it all ended – Stephen leaving Jane just as his star was truly ascending – but Redmayne and Jones do their best with what they have, which makes the movie work on certain levels. Just be sure to cry because of the story itself, not because Marsh and Jóhannsson are telling you to.
Directed by James Marsh