Feb 20, 2020
The Theory of Everything (2014)
When it comes to Stephen Hawking, one of the most famous theoretical physicists of our time, there’s a wide variety of biographies and second-hand accounts about his life and theories in both book and video form. But James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything takes a different approach, in that it’s based on the memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by his ex-wife Jane Hawking, which gives us a more romantic, intimate look at the scientist’s life. One of this year’s Best Picture nominees, the film stars Felicity Jones as Jane and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen in the role that won him the Oscar for Best Actor (beating out sentimental geek favorite Michael Keaton).
While working on his PhD at the University of Cambridge, a young Stephen Hawking finds himself at a party with several of his fellow classmates, where a girl named Jane Wilde catches his eye. She’s immediately intrigued when she notices Stephen shyly looking at her. When he comes over to talk to her, the two hit it off, despite his awkward demeanor and their opposing religious views (she has religion, he doesn’t). They begin dating and it doesn’t take long before the two fall in love.
Meanwhile, Stephen continues his studies, and excels at math and physics. After attending a lecture about the gravitational singularities inside black holes, he begins to formulate theories that extend the same concept to the creation of the universe. He finally declares that his doctoral thesis will be about time itself, and he aims to prove that the universe has a definite beginning.
Just as Stephen is making great strides towards his thesis, he begins to notice his body is failing him. One day he falls and injures himself badly, which leads to a diagnosis of ALS (better known at the time as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which causes the death of neurons that control voluntary muscle movements. He’s told that eventually, he won’t be able to move or speak or swallow, and he’s given a prognosis of two years to live.
At first, Stephen responds to the grim news by locking himself away from the world, waiting to die. However, Jane won’t be shut out of his life. She loves him and wants to get married so they can spend whatever time he has left together. Despite everyone telling her she doesn’t understand how painful the next couple of years will be for her, they marry and their first child follows shortly after.
Two years later, Stephen is still miraculously alive, although his physical condition continues to deteriorate. A second child arrives, as does new theories about time and space. Stephen becomes a celebrity in the scientific community for his prediction of radiation emitted by black holes (which becomes known as Hawking radiation), but life at home begins to slowly unravel.
Unable to care for two children and Stephen by herself, Jane becomes bitter and angry. Her mother suggests she join the church choir, where she becomes acquainted with the choir leader, Jonathan (Charlie Cox). Having lost his wife to leukemia and needing a purpose in life, Jonathan steps up to help Jane with Stephen and to play father figure to the children. Eventually, Jane falls in love with him, though the movie is frustratingly vague about when and how this happens, with the first inkling of an affair being when Jane gets pregnant again and her family wonders who the father is.
Stephen accepts Jonathan into the family despite warnings from his parents, and even allows him to take Jane and the children on a camping trip while he travels abroad. However, during the trip, Stephen’s health takes a turn for the worse and he’s placed on an ventilator. After a life-saving tracheotomy is performed, Jane is told Stephen will never speak again.
But then he’s given a specialized wheelchair with a built-in computer that allows him to speak via a voice synthesizer. He also gets an attractive live-in therapist named Elaine (Maxine Peake) who teaches him how to use it, and she quickly takes on the role of his caregiver as he performs lectures around the world and becomes a bestselling author. Jane and Stephen’s marriage falls apart, and he tells her it’s okay to leave. Jane eventually marries Jonathan and continues her own education, while Stephen eventually marries Elaine.
The film ends with Stephen and family waiting to meet the queen for Stephen to be knighted (though onscreen text after the movie informs us that he actually turned down the knighthood, reportedly over the British government’s mismanagement of scientific funding).
While The Theory of Everything alludes in various ways to Stephen Hawking’s career and discoveries, the film is really about life with his first wife, and how they managed to survive thirty years of marriage with his physical condition becoming increasingly worse.
As a result, the scientific elements of the story are mostly there to highlight Stephen and Jane’s ongoing disagreements about religion, and whether it’s possible to prove or disprove the existence of God. It’s a bit disappointing that the film never really delves into Hawking’s theories, though it probably would have been hard to make a movie dramatically satisfying while expounding upon concepts that would go over the majority of moviegoers’ heads.
Call it the Beautiful Mind Approach: just as John Nash’s contributions to game theory took a backseat to his mental illness and relationship with his wife, so too are Hawking’s theories about black holes mostly just background for a story about falling in love while coping with ALS.
Though, unlike A Beautiful Mind, at least The Theory of Everything can admit that the husband and wife at the center of its story eventually got a divorce. The film shows us the shortcomings of both partners in this marriage, which brings a fairer picture to things rather than seeing only one skewed view, which is a nice change of pace from most memoir/biography pieces. It also makes it a more believable love story, in that it shows love can conquer a lot, if not all, but time does change everything and everyone.
My favorite aspect of the film was its humor. If you’ve ever heard Hawking speak, then you know he has a strong sense of humor about life, and it was great to see that incorporated into the film, especially in his interactions with his own children.
But overall, the film is a bit too respectful to its subject(s) to really be interesting. The script reveals nothing about the life of Stephen Hawking that you haven’t already gleaned from all the articles written about him over the decades. There are no big revelations here, the movie doesn’t really go for any difficult truths about living with a disease like ALS, and most of the extramarital shenanigans happen off-screen, with only subtle hints doled out long after the fact.
The Theory of Everything is a well-shot, well-acted film that keeps viewers engaged, though the lack of any real surprises or unexpected moments means there’s not much to talk or think about afterwards. It’s definitely worth a watch if you want to get a better feel for the living, breathing human behind the theories and the computerized voice, or if you’re looking for a nice story of hope and triumph in the face of adversity, but don’t expect it to leave much of a lasting impression.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]