The old saw is that behind every great man is a woman. To be truthful, the woman has to be pretty extraordinary to get through the vicissitudes that a great man can face, as well as the vicissitudes the man himself may throw at her. Jane Hawking detailed those travails of living with her husband, cosmologist Stephen Hawking, in the book “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.” That book is the basis for The Theory of Everything.
The movie picks up Stephen’s life when he enters Cambridge as the pupil of Dennis Sciama, who was himself a famous physicist and is counted as one of the fathers of modern cosmology. Stephen is brilliant but unfocused, unsure where to aim his powerful intellect. In a wonderful scene, Sciama (David Thewlis) takes Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) into one of the labs at the school and explains some of the great work done in that room, such as Ernest Rutherford’s splitting the atom in 1917. (Rutherford had already received the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1908 for work on the disintegration of elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances.) Sciama leaves Stephen there to contemplate what he will do.
Soon after his arrival at Cambridge, Stephen meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) at a campus mixer. It was an odd mix from the start, since Jane is an Arts major with a focus on medieval poetry. Jane is also a faithful member of the Church of England while Stephen isn’t a believer. In the film he explains that cosmology is “kind of the religion of intelligent atheists.” While attending a party with Jane, Stephen is inspired to focus his study on time, with the idea of following time backward to the creation of the universe. But it seems that time is something Stephen won’t have when he’s diagnosed with what was called motor neurone disease in the UK, but is more commonly known as ALS or, in the States, Lou Gerig’s Disease. The doctor gives him two years to live.
The Theory of Everything is an incredibly intimate portrait of the highs and lows of a marriage. With the Hawkings, the highs were stratospheric, the lows devastating. Both of the principles cooperated extensively with the filmmakers. Stephen lent the production his copy of his doctoral thesis that he had signed at the time, and he allowed them the use of his copyrighted mechanical voice. In the delightful scene when he first gets the voice simulator, Jane is surprised that it has an American accent and wonders if there are any English voice options.
The movie could have been a turgid tearjerker like the disease-of-the-week films that television loves, but screenwriter Anthony McCarten has done a sterling job adapting the book and filling the movie with surprising humor. The mechanical voice is used this way a couple of times. After receiving it, Stephen has it say the first line of “A Bicycle Built for Two,” ala HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and later he chases his children in his wheelchair while the voice repeats “Exterminate, exterminate.” That humor makes the tears that the movie does jerk from us come from our hearts, not shallow sentiment.
Eddie Redmayne is a revelation as Hawking. He was excellent in his first major role, My Week With Marilyn, and held his own in Les Miserables, but here he’s able to speak volumes with a slight smile. It was a physically demanding performance for which he lost 15 lbs and also trained for months as a dancer to gain complete control of his body. His remaining in character physically in between takes actually hurt the alignment of his spine. Redmayne’s dedication to the role has already brought him the Golden Globe for best actor in a dramatic role, and it may translate to Oscar gold at the end of next month. Interestingly, fellow nominee (and close friend) Benedict Cumberbatch is another actor who has portrayed the cosmologist, in the 2004 BBC TV-movie “Hawking.” Hawking has gotten into the act himself, you could say, with recent appearances on “The Simpsons” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
But you need iron to sharpen iron, and Felicity Jones provides that. Hers is a deeply internalized embodiment of Jane, where the character shines out through her eyes. Her first major leading role was in 2011’s Like Crazy, which also starred Jennifer Lawrence (pre-Hunger Games) and Alex Kingston (“Doctor Who,” “ER”). Like Remayne, with this role she matures into a full-fledge and powerful actress.
Director James Marsh is known more as a documentarian, having won the Oscar for Man On Wire in 2008. His eye for drama in real life serves the film well. Assisting with the emotional impact of the film is a gorgeous score by Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, who picked up the award for best score at the Golden Globes. He’s likely to win the Oscar as well, since his main competition, Alexandre Desplat, is nominated for two films (The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel) which will likely split his support.
Although there have been some changes made to the story, Stephen Hawking told the filmmakers that watching the movie was like watching scenes from his life. For a biographical film, that’s the best recommendation you can get.