The Theory of Everything is a Stephen Hawking biopic. But more specifically, it is the story of Stephen Hawking as it pertains to his relationship with Jane Wilde, who became his wife. As such it is based on her memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. This makes the tale more than just a mere biography of the scientific genius. It is that to be sure, but the chronicle is also a romantic drama. This is a most unique approach to the profile of a man more famous for being an astrophysicist and cosmologist than for whom he fell in love with. The method humanizes the man in a way that is altogether unexpected.
Most of us know Stephen Hawking after he was stricken with ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s Disease), the motor neuron disease that causes muscle weakness and impacts physical function. The brain however remains unaffected. But the production starts well before he was stricken with that ailment. In the introductory scenes Redmayne suggests a socially shy but intellectually confident young man. It is the 1960s and Hawking is pursuing a doctorate in physics at Cambridge. Felicity Jones is stirring as Jane Wilde, the language arts major (medieval Spanish poetry) he meets while there. As the presentation juggles Stephen’s work and illness, she is the romantic connection that unites the two intensifying the already emotional thread throughout his life. An early conversation between Jane and Stephen’s father warning her that she might not be prepared for what is to come is particularly affecting. Director James Marsh inserts beautiful montages that glow with the warmth of people in love. These extravagantly shot interludes could have become glossy affectations. Yet inserted amongst the events taking place on screen, they help to highlight the passage of time and make the film’s visceral high points resonate more clearly.
Any discussion of The Theory of Everything must focus on the lead, Eddie Redmayne. Up until now, best known for playing Marius in the cinematic version of Les Misérables. Granted he was extremely good in that, but somehow I would never felt him qualified to play this part. Oh how wrong I would’ve been. Somehow Eddie Redmayne, who had never suggested a visual similarity to Stephen Hawking before, completely inhabits the role. There have been many many great performances at the movies, but a significantly smaller number where the actor chosen for the part so perfectly resembles the individual in speech, behavior and physicality that you indeed forget you’re watching an actor. Ben Kingsley as Gandhi comes to mind. Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking is another.
If one is to judge a movie by the way it makes us feel, by the emotion that it elicits, then The Theory of Everything has got to be considered an unqualified success. After the disease takes hold, Stephen Hawking embarks on a transformation whereby the deliberate degradation of his body manifests itself. Slowly, painfully, we watch as this brilliant man succumbs to the affects of this disorder. Actor Eddie Redmayne bends his frame in ways that look as if he truly is suffering from the actual condition. At no time does the performance every feel exploitative,. Nor does his achievement ever read like he is showing off. Redmayne simply is, progressively contorting his body while battling the increasing difficulty with which he is able to speak. Gradually that ability disappears as well. The effect is heartbreaking and yet it is a testament to the strength of will that Hawking had to summon in order to overcome his disability. It is a flawless triumph that celebrates the man’s success with respect and dignity.