The Theory of Everything is the perfect title for James Marsh’s winning biopic of the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking—and not only because it’s also the title of one of Hawking’s many best-selling books, a collection of Cambridge lectures in which he begins feeling his way toward a unified theory that would bring together the theretofore irreconcilable domains of general relativity and quantum physics. More than a portrait of Hawking the scientist, this is a frank dissection of his long and complicated first marriage (to Jane Wilde, on whose memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen the film is based). And what is the idea of romantic companionate marriage, in all its crackpot “till death us do part” absolutism, if not a theory of everything?
Neither the question of how to live with and love one other person for the rest of one’s life nor that of why matter behaves differently on the macro and micro scale has been solved by human ingenuity. Hawking’s version of the unified theory, though influential, remains speculative, and his marriage to Jane did come to an end after more than 30 years together—years in which the mere fact of Hawking’s continued survival counted as a miracle, given that he had been diagnosed with a highly degenerative neurological disorder as a young man and given two years to live. Fifty years later Hawking is still with us and, at 72, still writing and lecturing on scientific concepts that most of us can only grasp for a few seconds at a time.
The story of how this man found the inner strength to achieve all he has against such crushing odds might also make for an excellent movie, but that’s not the story that Marsh (who’s best known for the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire) wants to tell. The Stephen Hawking of The Theory of Everything—brilliantly played by Eddie Redmayne with a mix of twinkly charm and brusque self-absorption—remains somehow mysterious, a never-fully-knowable quantity to his wife or to us. It’s Jane (the dazzling Felicity Jones) whose head we get inside—not through the use of voiceover, but by dint of the careful attention Benoît Delhomme’s camera pays to her face and Anthony McCarten’s script to her lived experience. The inspirational biopic about a person with a disability who triumphs over adversity isn’t something new (though a really good one, like Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, can still do something new with the form). But movies that focus on the hardships of life with a disabled spouse can hardly be said to be in oversupply. The Theory of Everything may be conventional in its style of presentation, but the film’s content is surprisingly feminist. Marsh takes apart the myth that behind every great man there’s a great woman by showing us the daily strain involved in such unequal partnerships.
As the film begins in 1963 at a nostalgically lensed Cambridge University, Jane is a pretty, devoutly religious young humanities student who starts a flirty party chat about cosmology with the atheist Stephen, a whiz-kid slacker who scribbles his physics homework on the back of a train schedule, but still solves nearly every equation with a speed and elegance that confound his professor (David Thewlis, on loan from the faculty of Hogwarts). These scenes of the couple’s early courtship, especially one that takes place on a bridge hung with lights for a school dance, are lushly romantic without ever crossing the line into schmaltz. Knowing what these two are about to go through together, the audience needs to feel they share an intense and immediate connection; we don’t begrudge Stephen and Jane a minute of their meet-cute. (Or in this case, I guess, meet-smart?)
Not long after falling head over heels for Jane, Stephen takes a literal fall in the university courtyard, landing in the hospital. His weakening foot is diagnosed as an early symptom of a nerve disease related to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and he’s told he’ll be dead within a few years. At first, the news doesn’t sit so well with this ambitious and arrogant young man. He cuts class and holes up morosely in his room, leaving Jane to find out about his condition through a common friend. But she insists they carry through with their plans to marry and finish their degrees. Whatever time he has left, she tells him, she wants the two of them to spend it together.
Despite Stephen’s steadily weakening body, the early days of their marriage pass in a happy (if distractingly Instagram-resembling) blur. He begins to publish and teach, quickly earning a reputation as a writer of sophisticated and accessibly written popular science, while Jane manages his schedule and attends to his ever-increasing needs for bodily care while also raising their children. (They will eventually have three; as Stephen impishly confesses to a male friend, not every part of his body is disabled.) Over a frustratingly long period of years, Jane at last manages to complete her Ph.D. in medieval Spanish literature. (You had me at … pretty much all of that last sentence.) But she feels professionally and personally adrift, especially after the handsome choir conductor at her church, Jonathan (Charlie Cox), awakens her long-dormant need to be not only the caretaker, but also the cared-for. Stephen is surprisingly tolerant of that chaste flirtation—which doesn’t make him any more sympathetic to Jane’s pain when, years later, he becomes attached to his hired nurse, Elaine (Maxine Peake).
Jones and Redmayne are both superb as a devoted but imperfect pair of headstrong people trying, and sometimes failing, to treat each other with care and respect. In a technically demanding but resolutely unmawkish performance, Redmayne communicates young Stephen’s rage at the prospect of his own physical degeneration, as well as the shame he feels about his growing dependence on his wife and other caretakers. By the time he’s confined to a wheelchair and, eventually, voice-synthesizing machine, Hawking’s immobilized and twisted body has become as unspectacularly palpable—as simply and evidently there—as his restless, searching mind. (And, quite frequently, his dry sense of humor, as when he answers his wife-to-be’s inquiries about his religious beliefs by confessing a personal distaste for “the whole celestial-dictator premise.”) Jones, a petite English rose-style beauty, seems too small and frail at first to rise to the challenge of wrestling a quadriplegic in and out of his wheelchair. But her gradual maturation into a steely matriarch is utterly believable. A scene in which Jane wearily but accurately summarizes her husband’s latest complex theory for a dinner guest, pausing only to feed the now world-famous physicist peas from a spoon, captures the couple’s complex dynamics of interdependence, resentment, and collaboration.
You could fault the filmmakers, as some have, for spending so much time on Hawking’s romantic entanglements that his scientific innovations go largely unexplored. The physicist’s theories come in handy here mainly for the abstract truths they symbolize: the potentially unlimited reach of human knowledge, the melancholy mystery of time’s unrelenting forward motion. In a late sequence, we see Jane and Stephen’s rocky romance—and his physical decline—heartbreakingly thrown into reverse, the weakness leaving his body as he races backward in time to embrace his young bride-to-be on the bridge after that Cambridge dance. To steal another of Hawking’s book titles, this tender and wise account of the years they had together might be also be titled A Brief History of Time. Then again, what marriage couldn’t?