At the very end of “The Theory of Everything,” a pastiche of scenes jogs backward to the very beginning of a long relationship—that of Stephen Hawking and his beloved Jane. By that time—over two hours after the movie begins– viewers know more than a little about theories of time and what might happen if it could—as Hawking hopes, in the space of one elegant equation—be reversed to find its beginning.
And at the very end of the movie, viewers also know more than a little about why Stephen and Jane enjoyed thirty years of a dedicated marriage, and were supportive– even instrumental– in moving their separate second loves into the spotlight. Jane marries again after her choir director befriends them both, moving into their sphere and their home to tend to Stephen’s ever-greater needs. Stephen marries again after a therapist-nurse provides Jane’s own life a more metaphorical room to breathe.
This film is more than charming. It has depth, ingenuity, skill, and restraint. Based on Jane Hawking’s memoir, “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” the screenplay touches on the humanity and brilliance of a man who refused to give up. Still alive at 72 after a diagnosis of motor-neuron disease that was supposed to kill him in his 20’s, he is to this day a physicist, author, dad, and grandfather. Jane Wilde met him while they were in college, married him knowing he had a degenerative illness, set about making a family with him in their graduate student quarters, and earned a doctorate in poetry while caring for him.
Their parents figure in the mix, his father making sure that Jane knows what she is in for at the start. Jane’s mother gives her advice later in the marriage, what Jane calls the most English thing anyone has ever said to her–that she might want to join the church choir. After all, it is only an hour a week, mom adds.
Mom might have known that the choir director had lost his own wife a year before, but who’s to say in a world where time can run, at least theoretically, backward. And then Jane becomes pregnant once again with Stephen, sending the choir director away until, poignantly for all, the new nurse takes the wheel in Stephen’s care, ultimately making it possible for Jane to rediscover him.
Which is not to say that the usual passage of the usual time didn’t take its usual toll. Hawking becomes progressively unable to move; Jane keeps up her stoic role, but brightens mostly when she includes others in her life. But time hasn’t taken a toll on Hawking’s mind, and he understands implicitly that there are further ramifications to a theory that goes back to the very beginning of time. So does Jane. One way of looking at time admits of the presence of a higher mind at an actual beginning of it all. Another doesn’t.
In the last scene, delivering a lecture to an admiring audience, he sees that a young woman in the front row has dropped a pen. The camera takes the audience to that dropped pen and back again, until we understand that Hawking is wishing he could do something about it. We watch while he miraculously morphs backward through time to straighten up, rise out of his chair, recover his old walking gait, navigate stairs, and pick up the pen confidently to return it to its owner. The next moment, we see him sitting in his chair again with his limitations intact. The entire episode took place–running time backward–theoretically, in his mind.
And he understands that the human mind can take us beyond the limits of our usual, earth-bound ideas. He reminds us that after all, we are a small band living on a small bit of land in a vast space, albeit with our own triumphal, even when small, successes.
This film is a triumph of directing for James Marsh. And it is a triumph of performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, not assuming roles glued on like sequins, but instead creating a three-dimensional impasto that combines texture, reflection, and imagination.
Linda Chalmer Zemel also writes the Buffalo Alternative Medicine column.
Contact Linda at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch the trailer here.
For another excellent biographical film, try this:
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