OK, so there are a few cringe-worthy moments in The Theory of Everything, a muted and respectful biopic about an intellectually towering icon. The real Stephen Hawking, who is played in the film in a career-defining embodiment by Eddie Redmayne, would not stand for the sentimental score that attends the aftermath his on-screen diagnosis of ALS — the sweeping sadness that unnecessarily underlines this life-altering news.
Likewise, the real Hawking would probably find gauche a fantasy sequence, late in the movie, in which his likeness walks up from his wheelchair to retrieve a pen dropped by a student in a lecture hall. And he might find overly literal the director James Marsh’s decision to run important images from Hawking’s life in a backward spool, as a formal complement to Hawking’s pioneering work on the nature and malleability of time.
Pickers of nits can point at these moments of misguided stylization in The Theory Everything, but the more you become invested in this touching story, the fewer of them you’ll notice. These flourishes are anomalous, after all; for the most part, director James Marsh, who launched his brand through powerful documentaries such as Man on Wire and Project Nim, prefers hushed tones and minor keys, observing small wonders and letting the drama sell itself. It’s a lovely and sincere picture that takes pity on no one, and Marsh’s direction is remarkably sensitive.
We first encounter Hawking from a ceiling’s-eye view, in an out-of-focus prologue, navigating his wheelchair in concentric circles in a gilded interior that is identified later as Buckingham Palace. We then cut to another circle, this time a bicycle wheel, driven by Hawking, as he races a friend to class at Cambridge, in 1963. Marsh is fond of such transitions, which some might find portentous: Stephen attends a lecture about black holes, in which space is imagined on a chalkboard as contracting into ever-smaller circles; then he sees the universe in the round swirl of a coffee mug, which, after similar close-ups in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Taxi Driver, has become something of a cliché. Marsh gets away with it because of the seemingly spherical nature of the space-time questions Hawking has devoted his career to answering.
At any rate, Redmayne plays him as a gangly student with square glasses, an inverted gaze, an indecisive haircut and an inevitable bowtie, who still has enough charisma to attract Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) at a party. They fall in love while Hawking develops his bold theories of universal creation while at the same time gradually losing his motor function. He ignores the warning signs until he stumbles on a campus sidewalk, and soon faces a two-year prognosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
First he endures crutches, then a wheelchair, insisting that his succumbing to a life without legs is “temporary” — all the while revising his earlier theories to ones even more radical. To borrow from his own cosmological lexicon, his mind expands just as his body collapses. Then, a bout of pneumonia brings on a surgery which, as we all know, deprives him of his vocal cords.
Jane Wilde Hawking, whose memoir inspired this movie, is, unlike her husband, a believer in God. But Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten wisely dispense of the idea of pitting their relationship as a battle of opposing philosophies, one being categorically better than the other. Instead, the themes are self-sacrifice and the limits of love. For Jane, caring for Stephen was like having another child in the house (they had three together in the course of their marriage), a full-time job that required her to eschew her own ambitions as a scholar of medieval poetry.
She’s a great person, but she’s not a saint; we see the mounting frustrations as well as the undying affection, especially when Jane meets an attractive suitor who is very much in control of all of his functions (played by Charlie Cox). Nor is Hawking depicted as a deified genius; in one key scene, he acts like a lousy and unsupportive husband. Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography is boldly and inventively tinted, but the movie’s primary emotional shade is gray.
Too much praise cannot be leveled on Redmayne’s transformation, which never once feels like acting. Given the film’s quarter-century in narrative length, he’s tasked with realizing Hawking at all levels of decline, and the result is a triumph in acting by gradation. It’s a testament to the miraculous acting and direction that even the sound of his mechanical voice box eventually disappears, and his conversations feel perfectly “normal.”
Redmayne certainly captures his physicist’s dry wit, but I would have liked more screen time devoted to just why Hawking was so brilliant, and why his ideas were so revolutionary — more scenes like the dinner-table lecture in which Jane explains the theory of relativity versus quantum mechanics, to Cox’s bemused choral teacher, using a pea and a potato. But given the source material, which draws more from Jane’s side than Stephen’s, the absence of deep scientific inquiry is justified. And for that, we always have Errol Morris’ 1991 documentary about Hawking, based on the author’s best-selling A Brief History of Time. Perhaps by recutting a docudrama from the footage of both of these films — The Theory of a Brief History of Everything — can we come close to capturing the great thinker’s heart as well as his mind.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. Director: James Marsh; Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Maxine Peake, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, David Thewlis; Distributor: Focus Features; Rating: PG-13; Opens: Friday at Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton, the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale, AMC Aventura, Regal South Beach and AMC Sunset Place in South Miami.