It’s easy enough to get an audience worked up during the end of an inspirational biopic – that’s basically the point of most films in the genre – but James Marsh’s moving and magical The Theory of Everything does a neat trick: it starts the waterworks flowing early. They never really abate. Marsh’s take on beloved thinker Stephen Hawking is an intensely, richly emotional feature that boasts big, star-making performances by both its very talented leads and a narrative that doesn’t flinch when it comes time to get down to the dirty stuff. Ostensibly a feature about Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), The Theory of Everything also gorgeously captures the story of Stephen and his first wife, Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones), gracefully winding the two tales into one.
Stephen and Jane are initially attracted by virtue of the most basic of human instincts: they like the look of each other. Eventually, however, the seemingly different pair discovers that their disparate fields of study (Jane’s a poetry buff with her own designs on getting a PhD) surprisingly intersect, and even what later becomes a long-standing debate about the existence of God helps bond the pair together. It’s still early days in their pairing when Stephen falls ill and the disease wreaking havoc on his body finally reveals itself, but even it proves to be no match for the pure force of Jane’s affection and dedication.
Jane is snappy and smart, and strong enough to take on what is about to happen to Stephen, even if he’s initially unable to process or face what’s going to come next. Stephen is a little strange, but he’s obviously deeply gifted (to put it mildly), and he’s got the kind of light spirit that’s appealing and comforting – it’s also the same spirit that will serve him quite well over the more trying years.
The delivery of his diagnosis is shocking to Stephen, but even as he’s physically ailing, he’s most concerned about the state of his brain. His mind won’t be affected, but the crumbling of his body will soon be so severe that it won’t actually matter what he thinks – eventually no one will be able to understand what Stephen has to share. The serendipitous cruelty of Stephen’s body impairing his ability to convey what spins in his mind isn’t lost on him, and it’s certainly not lost on the film’s audience. Stephen’s initial deterioration is fast, and although he retains his wry sense of humor and his prodigious intelligence, that doesn’t stop the unstoppable reality from setting in.
The film is principally occupied with charting the various permutations of the Hawkings’ relationship, although generous dashes of Stephen’s career and scientific endeavors appear throughout, and fans of Hawking’s theories will find much to enjoy within the feature. Still, The Theory of Everything is nothing if it’s not an epic love story, a biopic that’s concerned with the joining of two lives into one, not just a single person and their own individual issues.
Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten don’t sugarcoat the difficulties that the Hawkings face, and although their story is specific and unique – Jane even yells at one point, “we’re not a normal family!,” which is impossible to argue with – there’s a universal nature to the ups and downs of their relationship that will likely resonant with even the most “normal” of families. McCarten’s script has taken a few liberties with the Hawkings’ story – Jane wasn’t averse to flying as a young woman, for one – but is generally faithful to the trajectory of their lives together and the emotions that drove it.
Both Redmayne and Jones have been hovering on the cusp of breaking out in a big way, and The Theory of Everything is the ideal vehicle to capitalize on their talents and push them to the next level. Redmayne’s performance is, as should be expected, intensely physical, but the actor so fully and seamlessly embodies Hawking that it’s easy to forget that he’s even acting at all. He’s Hawking. He just is. Jones is breathtakingly lovely, and the strength and pain that she’s able to telegraph through every minute of her performance is something to be seen. The duo is excellent and engaging together, and the heartbreaking work they do here is enough to keep the tears flowing long after the final wrenching moments of The Theory of Everything unspool.
The Upside: An instantly iconic performance from Redmayne, an equally as stellar turn by Jones, a stirring score, a loving and honest tribute to both Hawkings, intellectually and emotionally engaging.
The Downside: Marsh’s decision to feature hazy and “home video styled” sequences is a little too on-the-nose and distractingly down the middle, underused Emily Watson and David Thewlis.
On the Side: The electronic voice that Redmayne uses in the later part of the film is the actual voice that Hawking still uses.