When Stephen Hawking was diagnosed in his early 20s with motor neuron disease, doctors told him that he would be dead in two years. His shell of a body was destined to fail him, to collapse into itself not unlike the black holes that would become the focus of his research throughout his life, though his mind would remain intact until it was time for him to meet his maker. Assuming, that is, he didn’t disprove that maker’s existence in his mad rush to live those two years to the fullest of his abilities. Fifty years later, and in no small part by the grace of his ex-wife, Jane Wilde, Hawking perseveres as one of the world’s greatest minds, a less single-minded version of his younger, no-less-droll self, limitless in his boundless curiosity to solve the mysteries of the universe. Which makes the straight and narrow path staked by James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything a vexing irony.
The film is elegant in its easy digestibility, from its handsome photography to its sensitive performances. It exudes the aversion to risk so typical of biopics with designs on Oscar while also standing in mild contrast to A Beautiful Mind’s more flagrant indulgences of style. Marsh, rather transparently, frames Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) as the film’s own center of the universe, friends and family revolving around him as if on an axis. Years before 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, the budding genius sees the universe in a cup of tea, and as he increasingly succumbs to his disease, it’s often that lights in the sky, or the oval shapes of an opera house’s ornate roof, grip his imagination. It was in 2001: A Space Odyssey that Stanley Kubrick cut between a bone and a ship to signify the evolution of mankind. Here, Marsh cuts between a bicycle wheel and a circular pattern on a rug to highlight a man’s interest in the celestial. The simplicity of the artistry is outright, but at least we’re spared the truly remedial spectacle of Stephen’s formulas twinkling like stars in the sky.
The filmmakers make science digestible enough for those without cosmology degrees, as in a scene where Jane (Felicity Jones) explains her husband’s theories to her future paramour, Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), using a potato on a fork. And notwithstanding the meddlesome tinkling of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score throughout, they refuse to make an overly portentous show of the symptoms of Stephen’s disease bubbling to the surface: When he knocks over of a cup of tea in his dormitory, the moment doesn’t exude the wild gravitas of a doomsday clock’s ticking. Even his merry riding through the streets of Oxford on a bicycle scans less as a happy-go-lucky vision of what the man will one day lose than it does as allegiance to nearly every film that’s ever been made about care-free collegiate Britons. The Theory of Everything may not succumb to mockery and cheap sentimentality, but in its meticulous adherence to conventional narrative inducement, it only offers a sanded-down and embossed vision of Stephen and Jane’s 30-year marriage.
Though the film refuses to depict Jane as a martyr, it also barely grasps her frustrations as a woman who must care for a man as if he were her child, congenially dancing around their carnality, as well as the implications of their extramarital affairs. But Redmayne and Jones do often succeed at pushing past the film’s flattening depiction of the couple’s life, especially in a wondrous scene where Stephen lovingly gifts Jane with the admission that he hasn’t ruled out God’s existence, only to then torturously tell her, through his computer-based communication system, that he’s traveling to America with his nurse (Maxine Peake). There’s no judgment in this exchange, no regret or animosity between husband and wife, only a strange and jarring sense of relief, of two people freeing themselves from a contract that was originally deemed to expire some three decades earlier. It’s an astonishingly subtle display of humane empathy in a film that’s otherwise averse to capturing human life in all its complicated fullness.