Two Sides to Every Struggle
Everything in The Theory of Everything has a glossy glow to it. The film follows the life of cosmologist Stephen Hawking in a way that coats his brilliance and love life with the same soft and shiny strokes. As the title suggests, this is not just a dramatic portrayal of genius. It shies away from filling that previously excavated mold and goes for the heart. Really, it goes for a lot of things, all of which are effectively moving and expectedly cheery.
Directed by James Marsh, The Theory of Everything knows its subject is both a scientific and cultural icon. So, Hawking’s theories about black holes and the origins of the universe—made famous in his many books– are nearly equivalent to his domestic achievements and struggles. This is largely a matter of choice. The film’s story was inspired by Jane Hawking’s memoir, “Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen,” and thus carries her point of view. The story, adapted by Anthony McCarten, is not particularly about her life as much as the couple’s marriage, an exploration into the relationship’s beginnings and the gentle separation that followed many years later.
Their connection begins as these sorts of romantic biopics normally do, with a glance across the room. Jane, given modest austerity by Felicity Jones, throws a slight smile over to Stephen, at this point wearing scruffy hair and sheepishness by an impeccable Eddie Redmayne. They wade through the hazy blue lighting of Cambridge University, and, as college students do in the 1960s, exchange majors and minors to begin flirtation. This bubbles into a hesitant romance. You don’t know exactly why Jane finds Stephen so charming but her devotion to him at such an early age intimates a much greater one later on. They share a close moment dancing under the stars amongst warnings of his shaky coordination.
Marsh is very intentional with his filmmaking this way. As he finishes his doctorate in physics, Stephen stares at a chalkboard with wonder, soon having trouble with writing numbers in front of his professor (David Thewlis). The camera shakes as he applies pressure. The camera later focuses on his feet, jumping down from his bunk bed. Soon, grasping a pen becomes a chore, and the onset of his Lou Gehrig’s disease, called motor-neuron disease in the film, rears its debilitating demands. The diagnosis—he’s given two years to live–and short period after it, prompts the only meltdown of the film. Stephen returns to school crawling on crutches, plopping himself into a wheelchair, and eating from his bed relocated to the kitchen. His obstacles start with aiming to conquer stairwells. Then they become forgetting them altogether.
One of the comical conceits of the film is that while Stephen’s muscles lose their functioning, a certain one doesn’t. It’s played for laughs but when Jane pops out three consecutive children, a grimmer reality begins to submerge them. Stephen wheels around the living room making a mess with the kids and Jane sits in the kitchen lost. “This will not be a fight, Jane, this will be a very heavy defeat,” Stephen’s dad tells her early on. As his son continues to live, and as Stephen’s theories impress scholars and evolve into denying his older ones (he later advocates a beginning-less universe), it becomes clear this will not be such a definitive defeat. So Jane finds relief and comfort with a choir director and music teacher, Jonathon (Charlie Cox), who vows to help her with Stephen and the children.
Naturally this friendship develops into a more romantic one and Marsh is keen to examine how this married couple manages their frustrations, setbacks, and image with each other. It never gets too contentious though. When an emergency forces doctors to perform Stephen’s tracheotomy, it’s right as Jane starts cozying up with Jonathon. Of course once Stephen, now inaudible, is supplied with his signature, computerized voice, his new personal assistant, Elaine (Maxine Peake), exhibits a similar romantic attraction. But arguments don’t stray too far, even debating about God and science. “What one believes is irrelevant in physics,” Stephen tells guests in front of Jane. Eventually, this statement will also get some amending.
The brilliance of Hawking’s mind is never fully tapped here and Marsh seems content to suggest it rather than fully engaging with it. That’s fine. A film like this can’t achieve every facet of a relationship and a man’s mind… and be packaged in a two-hour timeframe. The problem is that Marsh, at times, thinks it can. You’re really watching this for the performances, to see Redmayne improbably convey emotion with a few twitches and eye movements after some unintelligible dialogue. He sits in his chair, head tilted, and you rarely need the robotic voice to transmit his thoughts.
You need his other half to be just as convincing and Jones ends up doing most of the heavy lifting without being the gravitational center. In some ways it’s a role that garners your trust and then slowly detaches from it. A woman next to me during the screening was audibly dismayed with Jane’s extra-marital choices. She said little as the film brushed by Stephen and Elaine. But Jones makes Jane’s choice feel rational and eventually rewarding. The Theory of Everything, even in its limited endeavors, feels accomplished that way, giving sacrifice more than one dimension, and more than one responsibility.