“The Theory of Everything” opens like a well-mannered English rom/com. Brilliant science nerd Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) meets the lovely Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) at a party and immediately falls for her. Jane is no slouch in the intellect department herself, although as a student of foreign languages and poetry and a devout member of the Church of England, she is in many ways his intellectual and philosophical polar opposite. Their philosophical differences actually strengthen rather divide them, as they treat each other’s beliefs with bemused respect. Shortly into their burgeoning relationship, however, Stephen is diagnosed with MND, a debilitating disease related to Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
“Your thoughts will be unaffected by your disease, but no one will know them,” a doctor says to Hawking, explaining the diagnosis. A chilling, depressing thought, when applied to one of the great minds of his time.
Jane’s insistence on marrying Stephen, whom she’s told has only two years to live, is a turning point in both their lives. He gets back to work, and begins to produce his groundbreaking theories in physics. Jane on the other hand, slowly but surely gets a long, slow lesson in both the rewards and travails of being the woman behind the man. (Hawking, now 72, is still alive and working.) Ultimately this means not only back-burnering her own career while taking care not only of her disabled husband but their three children, but fending off nasty rumors concerning a well-meaning choirmaster (Charlie Cox) who befriends the family while obviously falling in love with Jane. His feelings are not unrequited. In a moment of true matrimonial horror, played with classic British reserve, Jane eventually tells her by-then famous husband, “They said you had two years. But you’ve had so many.”
This is a genius-eye view on “Scenes From a Marriage,” and that may not be what audiences were given to expect. Jane’s book “Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen” is the basis for the literate and witty script by Anthony McCarten, and the movie, balanced though it is, is undeniably sympathetic to Jane’s temptation to stray. That being said, the characters in this movie are presented as decent people trying to make their way in difficult emotional circumstances. Even the jabs directed at Elaine (Maxine Peake), Hawking’s second wife, are mild. The delicacy with which the Hawkings’ divorce is handled underscores the filmmakers’ intent to emphasize decency over salaciousness. It also emphasizes relationships, which do not function according to scientific principle, over Hawkings’ work, though McCarten’s script cleverly summarizes the high points in ways that are accessible to viewers other than doctoral candidates in physics.
It could be argued that in a film that functions primarily as a symphony of restrained and understated emotion, executed with taste and decorum to a fault, that we might have opened up with guns blazing here at least. But these people are British and apparently that just isn’t done.
Eddie Redmayne has 2 problems winning the Oscar for this. Half his performance is done with a synthesized voice, and he never raises it. But the best movie acting always does take place behind the eyes, and Redmayne’s face conveys volumes whether with the electronic voice or no voice at all. The problem is that Oscar voters like roles with yelling scenes, and no one in this movie raises their voice. There’s also no precedent for an actor winning an Oscar with a synthesized voice. Hopefully the Academy voters will take another look.
David Thewlis, who mentored Harry Potter in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” plays one of Hawkings’ professors, with his customary quiet gravitas. But it’s Redmayne and Jones who own this movie, and it’s the acting you’ll remember. The direction by James Marsh, best known for the documentary “Man On a Wire,” is self-assured, clean and restrained. When the closest thing to a gimmick in a movie is upping the grain to mimic 8mm home movies, you have to admire the lack of artifice. The lush cinematography by Benoît Delhomme is lush and evocative, and just as importantly, camouflages the modest budget. Everything about “The Theory of Everything” is understated, but it proves you can convey a lot with raising your voice.
“The Theory of Everything” is now showing at The Spectrum 8 Theatre on Delaware Avenue in Albany, and The Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas 11 & BTX on Railroad Avenue in Saratoga Springs.