A film review by Craig J. Koban January 22, 2015

RANK: #19


2014, PG, 123 mins.


Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking  /  Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking  /  David Thewlis as Dennis Schiama  /  Emily Watson as Beryl Wilde  /  Simon McBurney as Frank Hawking  /  Charlie Cox as Jonathan Jones

Directed by James Marsh  /  Written by Anthony McCarten

There’s simply no denying that Stephen Hawking’s life story is a remarkably inspirational one of him overcoming incredible odds.  

The celebrated English theoretical physicist and cosmologist suffers from a rare form of early on-set amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or motor neuron disease, which has slowly paralyzed him over the course of several decades.  He was diagnosed at 21, at which time doctors told him that he would be lucky to have two years left to live.  Hawking has made it through fifty years thus far; he’s now 72 and communicates ostensibly by using a single cheek muscle attached to a specialized speech-generating device.  The fact that the man has become one of the most brilliant and respected scientific minds on the planet during the last five decades – during which time he more than defied his prescribed death sentence – is truly miraculous. 

I’m not sure that any one film could adequately encapsulate Hawking's’ unique life struggles while, at the same time, explaining to non-intellectuals the meaning and far-ranging scope of his ideas and theories that have changed the world and our fundamental understanding of the universe.  THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING – taking its title from Hawking’s dream of attempting to find one single equation that explains…well…everything – is a biopic that doesn't really probe the depths of Hawking’s discoveries and achievements, which may disappoint many scientific minds in the audience.  However, thoroughly explaining Hawking’s radical ideas may have made for an impenetrable film on a dramatic level, so director James Marsh (whom previously made the Oscar winning documentary MAN ON A WIRE) does perhaps the next best and wisest thing by delving into the incredibly touching relationship he had with his wife – spanning nearly a quarter of a century - and the arduous struggle Hawking went through daily to effectively beat his disease.  THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, as a result, emerges as a love story of unexpected depth and intrigue. 



The film – based on Hawking’s wife’s own memoir – has a wonderful meet-cute that opens the story.  We first meet Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) as a gawky and somewhat socially insecure 20-year-old Cambridge student in 1963 that’s uncertain of what he wishes to devote his scientific life to.  When he casts his eyes on the lovely Jane (the angelic Felicity Jones) he seems instantly smitten.  The pair could not be anymore different: He’s an atheist cosmology student, whereas she’s a medieval Spanish poetry student that’s a devout woman of God.  Despite their inherent differences, Hawking and Jane become an item and as these two unlikely soulmates fall in love Hawking begins to gravitate towards his field of specialty: the study of black holes and the origins of the universe.  All in all, a pretty hefty academic challenge for a man just barely in his twenties. 

Unfortunately, Hawking's college career and budding relationship with Jane is dealt a crushing blow when he learns of the diagnosis of his ALS, which will destroy him physically, but not mentally.  Initially depressed by his doctor’s insistence that he has 24 months to live, Jane steadfastly decides to stand by her man no matter what the personal cost.  Her intervention essentially saves Hawking and the two decide to marry and, in the process, Hawking seems to defy the odds and continue to live, even though his body deteriorates for the worse every year.  He and Jane have two children despite his limitations, but his condition worsens when he becomes confined to a wheelchair and eventually loses his voice permanently after an emergency operation.  As time passes the sheer enormity of raising a family and tending to her husband’s every waking need begins to show its psychological effects on Jane, which begins to threaten her marriage and overall happiness. 

What ultimately helps THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING rise well above the moniker of a disposable inspirational fact-based biopic is the whole nature of the Hawking/Jane relationship presented within.  This is no ordinary marriage.  If anything, their love story is fascinating and takes some surprising detours.  Hawking responds to his initial diagnosis as the final nail in his coffin, but Jane’s headstrong and indomitable confidence for the future is what saved her husband’s life.  Even though Jane was, for better or worse, delegated to be a caretaker of sorts for all of Hawking’s everyday needs, she still remained a loving spouse.  THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING is on very secure ground when it dives into the behind-closed-doors life that Hawking and Jane lived, but it also becomes even more absorbing when it hones in on their infidelity to each other.  They don’t look to other people out of spite to the other, though, which is usually the damning foundation of a failed marriage.  Hawking begins to realize that he can only physically provide for Jane for so long and Jane realizes that she can’t tend to her husband forever without him eventually resenting her.  The two develop new romantic relationships almost like a mutually agreeable life support system to keep them both on track in life. 

The performances in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING is the solid bedrock by which the drama percolates with a sobering heartbeat.  Redmaye has always been a solid actor, but nothing will prepare you for the astonishing transformation he makes in embodying Hawking on a mental and physical level in the film.  He not only captures the mannerisms of Hawking down pat, but when the role requires him to submerge into his older, ALS-ravaged body, it’s a true testament to Redmaye’s focus and commitment as an actor.  There reaches a point where Redmayne has to deliver a totally convincing and enrapturing performance with just his eyes and face, which all but shows how incredibly immersive and grounded his performance is (echoes and comparisons to Daniel Day Lewis’ work in MY LEFT FOOT are worthy and apt).  Complimenting Redmaye quite nicely is Jones, an actress of astonishing beauty, grace, wit, and inner and outer strength.  It would easy to label THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING as Hawking’s story, but it truly is as much about Jane’s never-ending optimism and determination as well.  When Redmayne and Jones are on screen together they have an incomparable romantic energy and chemistry; every scene in the film – even when it finds itself cascading towards individual moments of potentially saccharine, soap opera melodrama – work because of it. 

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING looks sensational as well, largely thanks to Benoit Delhomme’s lush, textured, and atmospheric cinematography, which illuminates interior and exterior scenes with a vibrant, painterly eye for small details.  By the end of the film – when an older and wiser Hawking ruminates to college students about his A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME – it could be said that we really don’t get a working understanding of his theories, nor do we really get details about what he actually did to alter the course of the study of cosmology forever.  THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING is more of a distant minded salutation of Hawking’s brilliance, but I found the film more genuinely stimulating as a deeply tender and richly realized love story of two souls that try as much as they can to make an impossible situation work for decades.  Yes, Hawking and Jane eventually split and sought a different kind of love with other partners, but they did so with the respectful approval of the other.  

Alas, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, rather surprisingly, is less a film about a scientist and his incalculable contributions to scientific thought and discourse.  It’s really about how a husband and wife fought and beat the physical imprisonment and limitations of the man and, in turn, allowed him to have a sizeable place in the world.  In the end, the science – of lack of exploring science, for that matter – in the film is secondary to its triumphant tale of overcoming hellish adversity. 

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