The incredible story of British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who was afflicted with motor neuron disease while a student at Cambridge – leaving him with limited movement and speech – is ripe for the kind of stately, highbrow biopic that Hollywood seems to always churn out sometime around the beginning of Oscar season. It’s got it all: a well known real-life figure that’s famous for stunning achievements in his field; said figure surviving and triumphing over catastrophic personal crisis against all odds; period setting and air of refinement; and heart-tugging love story between our hero and the woman in his life.
All those elements are present and accounted for in director James Marsh’s (Man on Wire) new film The Theory of Everything, which is based on the memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Hawking’s wife Jane. But The Theory of Everything also has several additional features that lift it above the standard biopic template and make it a moving, inspiring yet bittersweet story that doesn’t sand down a few rough edges just to canonize its main character.
We meet Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) at university in 1963, studying cosmology, when he falls for beautiful arts major Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). No sooner are they in love, however, than the 21-year-old Stephen receives horrifying news: he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease, which will leave him completely paralyzed, unable to speak, and likely dead in two years. Nevertheless, Jane stands by him and the two marry and start a family, while Stephen meanwhile earns his doctorate and begins the studies of time and space that will make him a worldwide phenomenon. As his body fails, Stephen’s mind seems to only expand while Jane tirelessly cares for him and continues to find new ways for Stephen to communicate with the world.
The two lead actors are flat-out superb. Redmayne, perhaps best known before this as Marius in Les Miserables, is astonishing in his physical transformation into Hawking: you feel the acute discomfort and abnormality of having one’s body essentially crumple into itself even as his eyes and mouth dance with the man’s very active intellectual and emotional energy. Jones, continuing a streak of strong performances in films like Breathe In, The Invisible Woman, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (okay, just kidding about that last one), brings quiet strength, empathy and resourcefulness to a woman who was overshadowed in public by her husband’s towering accomplishments, but without whom he would have never gotten the chance to achieve them.
The best thing about The Theory of Everything – and why it sets itself apart from most biopics – is that the central relationship at the spine of the story is never allowed to become treacly or simply turned into the cinematic equivalent of a flawless, characterless piece of statuary, meant to be adored but never really felt. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten delves into the messier aspects of Stephen and Jane’s decades-long marriage, with his script and Marsh’s direction never rendering judgment upon either. The two emerge as neither heroes or villains – but as real human beings who feel and experience things whether they want to or not. If anything, the film might have been improved by delving deeper into their motivations for the actions they take.
The rest of the film does follow a somewhat more conventional, episodic structure – here is Stephen’s torturous doctorate presentation, here is the publication of his first book – which makes it large stretches of it more pleasant than truly compelling, but Redmayne and Jones keep pushing it forward with his mastery of Stephen’s wit and Jones’ steely yet compassionate resolve. By the time you get to the film’s third act, some of the story’s more unexpected turns feel earned simply because of the full inner life that the two actors have given these complicated people.
The rest of the cast – Simon McBurney, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, and Charlie Cox principal among them – are all very British and watchable, with Cox (who we will soon see as Matt Murdock on Marvel and Netflix’s Daredevil series) taking a tricky and potentially unlikable role as the caregiver Jonathan and making him both sensitive and sympathetic. The sets, costumes, and production design are all as marvelously detailed as you would expect from a film with this sort of pedigree, although some of the home movie footage – such as that of the Hawkings’ wedding – feels more like a gimmick than verisimilitude.
Stephen never quite finds the unified theory of time, space and creation that he is (still) looking for, and the movie hints that the answers are more spiritual than logical (Stephen starts the film as an atheist and ends it a bit more in the other direction). The idea is also broached that love is truly the most powerful force in the universe, a theme expressed in completely different terms by another movie about astrophysics that is also opening this week, Interstellar. The Theory of Everything is far more conventional but, in the end, true to its unconventional subject.
The Theory of Everything opens Friday, Nov. 7 in limited release.