“The Theory of Everything” is adapted from a very thick book that Stephen Hawking’s first wife, Jane Wilde Hawking, wrote about their relationship. The degree to which this film is any good – and the first half is very good – is not due to its source material, however. In fact, that this film succeeds at all is a miracle – if not a miracle on the scale of, say, Mr. Hawking’s accomplishments as a theoretical physicist and author. The truth is: The former Ms. Wilde’s memoir is a slog.
It is surprising that the first feature film biopic about Stephen Hawking focuses on the perspective of his former wife. (There already have been many documentaries about the acclaimed cosmologist as well as the TV movie “Hawking,” which starred smart-boy dreamboat Benedict Cumberbatch.) Based on his television commentary and writings, Mr. Hawking’s charisma and insight would enliven any account of his already-fascinating achievements but his discoveries are not what “The Theory of Everything” addresses. Rather, it hones in on the mind-body split that defines us all: the prosaic confinements of our physicalities (even when we’re not severely disabled) contrasted with the transcendence of our intellect and imagination. There may be no better lens through which to examine this split than marriage, which is a mystery so vast that not even the now-twice-divorced Hawking has been able to crack it.
The film begins in 1963, when Cambridge cosmology student Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) meets Wilde (Felicity Jones), a peaches-and-cream “student of the arts.” (Is that a fancy term for what they used to call an “M.R.S. degree?”) Awkward and otherwise-obsessed, Hawking is no Tarzan, and it takes him a while to claim his Jane, nerdy princess though she may be. Soon after the two finally begin to snog, he is diagnosed with an ALS-like motor neuron disease – a confluence that forces Hawking to recognize time as a worthy opponent. No wonder it’s the focus of his life’s work. “Keep your enemies closer,” indeed.
Director James Marsh made the fantastic Philippe Petit documentary “Man on Wire,” and he channels that same brainy enthusiasm to allow us entry into Stephen’s vision of the world – the dance of light and space that gives us trains, soil, sunshine, and, yes, young ardor. (The latter being so very biological, after all.) It’s a wonder that Stephen ever notices he has a body, this film suggests, let alone that he notices anyone else’s. Through his often-askew thick lenses, science is not just magic; it’s distractingly gorgeous.
Told he has two years left, Stephen tries to break things off with Jane but, with set jaw and quivering lip, she insists she’s in it for the long haul. As his body deteriorates, then, hers produces a family for them. His palpable joy in holding their small children – made all the more tender as his failing health makes it more of a feat – is wonderfully charged. So is Jane’s determination to keep their family afloat. We get the sense that she’d be a single mother in some ways even if Stephen weren’t more literally becoming “just a brain” every day.
Jones and Redmayne are the sort of actors who perk up whatever project they grace. His bright adoration ratcheted up the stakes of the otherwise-flat “My Week With Marilyn,” and Jones’s uniquely self-possessed innocence made even Ralph Fiennes’s wickedly indulgent Dickens biopic “The Invisible Woman” soar in places. Here, the young actors share a fulsome chemistry – all knowing glances and small, secret smiles – that can plausibly survive a lot, which certainly helps this movie make its case: Even after Stephen is almost entirely paralyzed, he impregnates Jane a third time. “Different systems,” he explains, with a wicked grin. That grin also survives a lot – including their chemistry, as it turns out. Eventually, the pressures of their situation grind them down and an overwhelmed Jane seeks solace in the Church. When the camera follows her by herself for the first time, it narrows to the width of her hunched shoulders. As, alas, does this film. Stripped of Stephen’s perspective from then on, “The Theory of Everything” whittles down to the conventions of a beat-the-odds biopic, complete with montages and dramatically faded-out dialogue. All that distinguishes it are two concurrent love triangles.
Gentle and hunky, widowed choirmaster Jonathan (Charlie Cox) becomes a third member of the Hawking marriage. He helps out with the kids, fixes things around the house, and generally stands in as the resident male body – though not sexually, at least for a while. Instead, he and Jane exchange long-suffering looks while Stephen buzzes along in his own, ever-expanding universe, cracking triple-entendre jokes in his mechanized voice and feting the cosmos (to which we’re no longer granted a front-row seat). Freed from the body, the wits thrive. So does Eros: Soon Stephen and his caretaker, Elaine (Maxine Peake, as a woefully one-note Other Woman), make use of that “different system” while Jane suffers some more. We know how the story ends because it is a matter of public record. Elaine becomes Stephen’s second wife. Jonathan becomes Jane’s second husband. Everyone remains polite.
The women behind important men deserve more recognition than they receive, of course; we all know such unsung heroes often make their partners’ achievements possible. But even in her own book, Jane Hawking is not a compelling woman. This does not make her unimportant – just not an ideal subject for a feature-length film, especially one that is adjacently, teasingly about one of the most remarkable thinkers of our time. Frankly, that he was a lousy husband is probably the least remarkable thing about Hawking. It doesn’t take a genius to know that “marriage is hard.” We’ve got dopey Ben Affleck for that.
This review was originally published in Word and Film.