There are some things that simply cannot be explained. When I was a young boy, we believed the universe to contain a mere nine planets in the Solar System.
Now, it would seem the universe is without limit.
There is life. There is death. There is God. There is good. There is evil. There are, quite simply, so many things that seem to defy understanding and explanation.
It is into this world that we are thrust into the life of a gangly yet spirited Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), initially introduced to us as a soon to be doctoral student at Cambridge University whose curiosity is seemingly without limits as may very well be his knowledge. It is at a party where the socially awkward young man first encounters Jane (Felicity Jones), a Liberal Arts Major whose faith in God truly defies Stephen's understanding.
They are different. Vastly different. Yet, their spirits connect and despite humanity's best efforts we've never quite figured out how to resist it when our heart sings with another. So, the atheist who questions everything begins dating whose faith leaves room for an embrace of what science has to offer.
Then, IT happens.
Stephen, whose often disheveled appearance and awkward gait had seemingly been just adorable quirks, is diagnosed with a motor neuron disease related to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a disease made infamous by baseball player Lou Gehrig. At a time when he should have been planning for an extraordinary future, Stephen was told that he likely had two years to live.
Despite Stephen's resistance and his family's well-meaning yet misguided warnings, Jane's loyalty is unwavering. Despite knowing that she will likely only have her dear Stephen for a maximum of two years, the two marry and begin their lives together.
As I'm sure you are aware, Stephen Hawking didn't die in two years. In fact, he still hasn't died at the age of 72 despite having had his condition decline so dramatically that he is, with the exception of his mind, dependent upon physical care in virtually every aspect of his life.
If there is a beef to be had with The Theory of Everything, and there is, it likely centers around the fact that distributor Focus Features has chosen to market the film as an inspiring romantic drama about a transcendent love story that, for most of humanity, likely defies understanding and logic.
After all, how could such a beautiful, healthy, and intelligent young woman truly commit herself to a man destined to become physically dependent? How could such a woman stay in said relationship once it became clear that Stephen Hawking was surviving far longer than anyone expected?
One can almost sense the quotation marks hanging in the air over the characters as The Theory of Everything subtly poses such a question without ever really providing the foundation upon which an understanding can be built.
Now then, as an adult with a serious disability myself and as an adult who has far outlived my own life expectancy, I do actually have at least a semblance of understanding regarding this kind of relationship. I've been in relationships with intelligent women and beautiful women and highly sexual women whose needs, at least in my own estimation, couldn't possibly have been met by me.
Yet, they were.
Yet, the film that unfolds here doesn't so much paint a portrait of a transcendent romantic love as it does paint a portrait of unwavering loyalty, absolute commitment, and our ability as human beings to embrace obstacles and live into our challenges. If you are aware of the story of Stephen and Jane Hawking, then you already have some semblance of how it all worked in real life. Hawking himself has proclaimed this film as "broadly true," though certainly it includes both dramatic license and so wildly edited in some areas of Stephen's life that it's inevitable that some scenes feel incomplete.
The Theory of Everything is penned by Anthony McCarten based upon Jane Hawkings' own novel recounting her 30-year relationship with a man widely regarded as one of the world's most intelligent. The film doesn't shy away from the more challenging and controversial aspects of Stephen and Jane's relationship, such as the rumored infidelities and the overwhelming toll that being a caregiver took on Jane. Yet, into these more challenging aspects, there's at least an attempt to paint a portrait of a love that wasn't so much defined by the boundaries but by those things that can often not be communicated or understood.
Much has already been reported about the physically complex and emotionally satisfying performance from Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. Redmayne's physical transformation is so convincing that it's emotionally and physically jarring, while he's mesmerizing as he portrays Stephen from his collegiate days into the early days of his motor neuron disease and then, as well, as the disease began bit-by-bit to claim almost his complete physicality. While some in the disability community have been bothered by Redmayne's comments about how he prepared for the role, comments that more stressed style over substance, the simple truth is that Redmayne's performance beautifully captures both the vulnerability and dignity of living into adulthood with a physical disability. Redmayne nicely captures Hawkings' spark of life and brashness that has never really gone away no matter how physically dependent he became upon others.
While Redmayne's performance is mesmerizing, only occasionally dipping into mimicking rather than acting, it is the performance of Felicity Jones that truly illuminates the screen. Jones provides the film its emotional resonance and inner turmoil. We believe that she is both fiercely loyal and loving while also being a passionate woman whose needs aren't being entirely met in this relationship and it may very well have nothing, or at least very little, to do with Stephen's physical dependence. When she joins a local church choir and encounters Jonathan (Charlie Cox), there's little denying that there's a spark even as she remains fully present with Stephen and, in fact, Jonathan eventually comes to have a supportive role in the family's life.
Director James Marsh, who won an Oscar for his documentary Man on Wire, refreshingly avoids "disease of the month" tendencies or a sense of "happily ever after," though the marketing campaign from Focus Features implies otherwise. The rich humanity provided to Jane is also equaled by that of Stephen, in scenes that more hint at than actually spell out the fact that Stephen eventually left Jane with a woman who'd been serving as his nurse.
For all the wonder of its performances, The Theory of Everything too often is content to play up the drama while languishing in emotional timidity. There are so many aspects of the real life Stephen Hawking that would have created compelling conflicts that it's difficult to understand why, more often than not, they don't find their way to the big screen here. There are rumored infidelities long before Jane meets Jonathan. There's Hawkings' own denial of disability and his refusal to speak about it for years. There's the well known fact that England's National Health Service, when confronted with serving one of the world's most intelligent men, offered instead to put him into a nursing home rather than providing the 24-hour round-the-clock care. Instead, Hawkings is said to have obtained these services initially through funding provided by a private foundation. In the closing credits, it seems rather odd that an explanation of Jane's relationship status is provided yet there's no mention of Stephen's second marriage or its eventual dissolution.
These really are minor quibbles, though they did prove distracting for this film critic with a disability hoping for a film that explored the intimate, everyday details of living with a serious disability while also celebrating one of the world's foremost intellectuals who has accomplished so much while relying upon the physical aid of others in many ways. It's a remarkable story told through remarkable performances in a film that never quite achieves the remarkable.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic