It may be coincidence that Interstellar and James Marsh’s biopic The Theory of Everything are arriving within days of one another, but the two are inextricably linked. Christopher Nolan’s deeply analytical sci-fi film is built on radical ideas involving quantum physics, black holes, and relativity, common dinner conversation for Stephen Hawking who informed much of what we know about all of them. But more than that, both films suggest that love is a powerful enough force to overcome all the science the universe has to offer.
Directed by James Marsh, known for his bold documentaries Man on Wire, Project NIM, and more, The Theory of Everything is fairly standard stuff by comparison. This isn’t the most challenging look at the relationship between Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones), adapting her first book would have been more interesting probably, but an uplifting one that explores how she helped a brilliant man survive a crippling diagnosis that would have destroyed others. Beginning in 1963 Cambridge, Hawking was a genius even then, but an underachieving one stymied by boredom and distraction. That is until he spies the beautiful Jane from across a crowded party, and both their lives are forever changed. The two couldn’t be more different, but those differences unite rather than divide. He’s an atheist, she isn’t; she studies Medieval Spanish poetry as a major; he studies time travel. “I like to time travel like you!” she says jokingly.
It’s a real joy to watch their bond grow. Too many movies skip this part of the courtship; figuring audiences don’t need it because we know they’ll end up together. In one especially great scene showing Hawking’s intellectual brand of flirting, they attend a party and he explains why all of the men’s ties are glowing under the UV light. The short answer? “Tide” laundry detergent. It’s a happy moment, one we know isn’t meant to last. Before long, Hawking begins to experience the early signs of the moto-neuron disease that would inflict him the rest of his life. It starts off subtle, and then builds to the point where he can barely walk. She pursues him further, he pulls away, but Jane is tough and willing to stand by his side. Given only two years left to live, he decides it’s a good time to get on with his life’s work, and while he’s at it why not start a family? His work in the field of time and space earns his accolades the world over, but Jane’s career is essentially put on hold. Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten are eager to show that Jane is just as much an intellectual with a bright future, and that she set it aside to care for the man she loved. It was her ability to keep him engaged and laughing that helped survive the rough patches, of which there were many. Quietly, the film becomes more about her than about Hawking, not completely unexpected given his physical state. The screenplay isn’t quite strong enough to give both their equal due, and a subplot involving Jane’s love affair with a handsome churchgoer (Charlie Cox) comes away looking like soap opera melodramatics.
What the film does extremely well is staying upbeat even in the face of incredible tragedy. This could have been just another stodgy, tedious British period piece but it stays true to Hawking’s real-life disposition most of the way through. This is due in part to Redmayne who gives a monumental performance, one that must have been complicated emotionally and physically taxing. He captures Hawking’s intellectual vigor as well as his comical spirit; that sparkle in his eye always present. Jones continues to impress but it does feel like she’s running in place a little bit. We’ve seen her play this sort of support role too often in the past (in The Invisible Woman most recently), and it would be good to see her try something a little different. We take movies like this for granted visually, but Benoit Delhomme does some truly inspired work that constantly surprises. Often he frames each scene like a complicated equation waiting to be figured out, and it’s never less than involving for the audience. While it’s too small to truly capture the enormity of Hawking’s presence, The Theory of Everything is a solid biopic about an extraordinary man.