Starring Eddie Redmayne (Les Misérables) and Felicity Jones (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), this is the extraordinary story of one of the world’s greatest living minds, the renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who falls deeply in love with fellow Cambridge student Jane Wilde. Once a healthy, active young man, Hawking received an earth-shattering diagnosis at 21 years of age. With Jane fighting tirelessly by his side, Stephen embarks on his most ambitious scientific work, studying the very thing he now has precious little of – time. Together, they defy impossible odds, breaking new ground in medicine and science, and achieving more than they could ever have dreamed. The film is based on the memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, by Jane Hawking, and is directed by Academy Award winner James Marsh (Man on Wire).
First things first, let’s get one thing straight: this is not a Stephen Hawking biopic. By that, I mean that this isn’t a look at the life of Hawking and his work. Instead, this is a look at the relationship between Hawking and his first wife, Jane, and it’s equally theirs. If anything, it may be tilted slightly in Jane’s favor. This makes sense, since the story is based her biography. But it’s important to note because it should help frame audience expectations for the film, to some degree.
With that in mind, The Theory of Everything paints an unusual and fascinating portrait of a marriage, and how even the best of intentions can take a toll on people. When Stephen and Jane begin dating, it’s before his diagnosis with ALS. While they have their differences – she’s a Christian, he’s an atheist – their relationship is building. Then comes Stephen’s diagnosis with ALS, and when he attempts to shut Jane out, she insists on staying by his side, taking care of him and marrying him, with the understanding that Stephen has been given two years to live.
Of course, Stephen continues to live well past that two-year estimate. With that comes a child, then another, and yet another. While Stephen’s physical body deteriorates, his work progresses and draws the attention of the world. Jane, meanwhile, is left to take care of her family, her plans to work in English literature set aside for years.
The film shows something that, while not unique, is still pretty different for a screen depiction: the deterioration of a relationship where neither side is at fault. While Jane is unfulfilled professionally, she’s more overwhelmed by the care she provides than frustrated. If anything, her frustration comes from others. When she begins to receive help from Jonathan, the parentage of her third child with Stephen is questioned by Stephen’s family, in spite of Jane’s insistence on there being nothing romantic between her and Jonathan. And while both Stephen and Jane would eventually have affairs, and Stephen would eventually leave Jane, the two do seem to care for each other immensely.
The bulk of the awards attention for the film has been aimed at Redmayne as Stephen, and he deserves the attention. Because the film shows Stephen’s ALS progression over the course of decades, Redmayne’s body has to contort over the course of the film. What’s more, as Stephen’s speech becomes increasingly limited, Redmayne has to convey Stephen’s emotions with a shifting set of skills, and he pulls it off remarkably. He’s matched by Jones, who imbues Jane with a quiet strength and determination that rarely wavers. You can buy her commitment to Stephen as the years pass, in spite of the increasingly difficult strain she’s under.
While there is a happy ending of sorts, it’s not quite the conventional Hollywood happy ending. It’s truer to the lives of Stephen and Jane Hawking, and the film – along with movie theaters this season – is the better for it.