In the realm of public intellectuals few loom larger than Stephen Hawking, the iconic theoretical physicist and ALS sufferer. The magnitude of the man’s life and career goes largely unrealized in the new film The Theory of Everything, which is salvaged through the extraordinary pathos evoked by stars Eddie Redmayne (who plays Stephen) and Felicity Jones (who plays his wife Jane). These two actors give major performances in what ends up being a minor film.
Beginning in the swinging sixties, The Theory of Everything introduces us to Hawking as an energetic, gawky and seemingly healthy young man. Zooming around on his bike, gallivanting at Cambridge parties (where he meets Jones’s luminous Jane) and completing his homework on the back of train schedules it’s a somewhat disarming introduction to a man who most of us only know as confined to a wheelchair.
This vibrant introduction augments the shocking horror of Hawking’s inevitable physical erosion, as does the film’s chronicling of his relationship with Jane Wilde Hawking. The film’s script and the chemistry between Redmayne and Jones quickly imbue the relationship with an affecting quality, one which turns incredibly poignant once Hawking’s symptoms begin to emerge.
The film’s first act basically ends at this moment, with Jane deciding not to turn tail and bolt even as Stephen’s illness threatens to destroy the couple’s future happiness. Thankfully, this selfless act doesn’t relegate Jane to the hackneyed “long-suffering wife” role so synonymous with these films about brilliant but troubled men. Instead, The Theory of Everything actually delves quite deeply into Jane’s personal struggles during her years with Stephen, correlating her experience with Stephen’s work on the concept of time, and suggesting how powerfully the concept affects the human experience.
It should perhaps be no surprise that the film is more effective in summing up Jane’s character than it is Stephen. Scripted by Anthony McCarten, who worked off of Jane’s memoir (Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen), The Theory of Everything doesn’t present us with much insight into the man. It positions him as a simple fellow who was able to make the most of a bad situation, and who occasionally jabbered about nebulous topics like singularity theorems and black holes.
Despite this lack of depth, Redmayne runs with what he is given, embodying the scientist’s passion with megawatt grins and nearly overwhelming charisma. He also manages to powerfully communicate the uglier side of Hawking’s experience, somehow incorporating near-contortionist body positions to capture the physicist’s frozen form in his later years. His work adds a new definition to the incredibly tired observation that one is “acting with their eyes.” For a huge swath of The Theory of Everything this is all that Redmayne has at his disposal, and he gamely rises to the challenge. He has two scenes in particular with Jones that will give your own eyes a workout – at least the tear ducts.
Despite these stellar leading performances, not to mention the craft of people like DP Benoit Delhomme and composer Johann Johannsson, The Theory of Everything doesn’t succeed in evoking the three-dimensional essence of this intellectual power couple. Director James Marsh never figures out how to communicate Hawking’s scientific prowess in a cogent or meaningful fashion. He reduces something like Hawking getting an epiphany for Hawking radiation to a bizarre scene where the physicist watches a fire through a hole in a sweater (which is stuck on his head).
Also bungled are the many details that defined Jane Hawking’s life, such as her own academic aspirations. After a few brief mentions in the film’s early scenes, Jane’s love for and work with the Romance Languages is shoved aside, only reappearing in a humorous and singular shot of her hunched over a book of poems that definitely looks like a prop.
Undoubtedly, stilted moments such as these are drawn from Jane’s original text. However, what may work through words often becomes mired in its translation to the screen. This particular take on Hawking is a testament to that process, which is a shame, as it stymies some of the film’s power, reducing it to little more than a humanistic paean for hope and sacrifice. That is not to say that there isn’t a place for these types of films, it just makes the film being entitled The Theory of Everything a bit ironic. While the film does touch upon big, universal topics like love and family, time and space, and parses how they tie us all together, there is little explanation offered into what set the Hawkings apart.