Arts movie review

The Theory of Everything: the physics of love and a love for physics

A poignant biopic on the life of Stephen Hawking

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Eddie Redmayne stars as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.
Liam daniel / focus features

The Theory of Everything

Directed by James Marsh

Starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones

Scheduled to be released in November 2014

Two years.

At 21, Stephen Hawking was faced with a timeline that seemed cataclysmic at the peak of his youth. Diagnosed with incurable motor neuron disease, he was given two years left to live while in the midst of his studies at the University of Cambridge, and his new romance with arts major, Jane Wilde. In a realistic and deeply poignant biopic, The Theory of Everything explores the complexities of love and science, with tear-jerking performances by Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking and Felicity Jones as Jane Wilde. A film of contrasts, The Theory of Everything exposes the realities of physical limitations intertwined with remarkable intellectual breakthroughs; fierce love intertwined with frustration; and tremendous fear intertwined with even greater hope.

The film, directed by James Marsh, avoids overly saccharine and dramatic scenes, managing to capture and convey the conflicting emotions of a marriage that defied all odds. Rife with refreshingly intimate and often humorous scenes of episodes in the Hawkings’ lives, The Theory of Everything is an honest exploration of the love and intellectual curiosity that fueled the couple’s ability to persevere and thrive despite Stephen’s physical degeneration. The depth of thought that led to the screenplay and production of such a fascinating story is evident in the carefully constructed narrative that balances the science with the humanity and adeptly traverses decades of the Hawkings’ lives.

Screenwriter and producer Anthony McCarten muses, “[Stephen Hawking] has illuminated physics for the world, and there is a sense of the profound in all of his work. His mind continued to open up one frontier after another in relentless exploration, so he was contracting yet also expanding — which was apt for a man whose life is devoted to studying the universe.”

Moving rather rapidly through the initial meet-cute between Stephen and Jane, the film skims over the early years of Hawking’s healthy, boisterous time as an active but awkward cosmology student at Cambridge in order to sink deeply into the challenges he faced after his diagnosis. As the intensity of the physical, mental, and emotional challenges rise within the stories, so do the performances. Eddie Redmayne spent extensive time researching the MND patients and interacting with Hawking, evident in his portrayal of Hawking’s physically demanding struggles as the disease evolves.

As in Hawking’s reality, constraint led to impressive breakthroughs for the actors as well, who produced highly evocative, impressive performances. Eddie Redmayne reflected upon his challenge of portraying Hawking accurately, “Only pure emotion could carry the freight of what the body wanted to say. I had to learn how to compress my emotions into a few words like haikus.” Without access to the wide swath of tools normally in an actor’s toolbox — from fluctuations in the voice to movements of the body, Redmayne had to learn how to communicate Hawking’s emotions by mirroring the expressive movements of Hawking’s eyebrows and eyes. With the help of prosthetics, Redmayne transformed into Hawking — capturing everything from his nuanced physical contortions to the mischievous, playful gleam in his eye.

The Theory of Everything leads the audience to discover a far more complex sense of admiration and fascination with a fierce, relentless love and seemingly boundless intellectual prowess through the lens of the daily struggles the Hawkings faced. Many critics harp on the lack of realism in the portrayal of Jane’s aging or a lack of focus on the scientific discovery, but the film masters what it set out to do: bring the audience along in a complex story of the beauty in the struggle, love, and the resilience of the human spirit, all without pretentiousness or sense of moral judgment. Gentle motifs, such as the swirling milk in espresso to the winding spiral staircases, reinforce the concept of the ultimate timelessness and circularity of life that drives Hawking’s discoveries as well: beginnings and ends, pasts and futures.

The film gracefully captures the essence of the nuances and complexities of love and the human spirit in a way that will leave the audience overcome with emotion, reeling from its straightforward profundity. Producer Anthony McCarten explained, “This film explores the realization of how unorthodox the Hawkings’ decisions in their personal lives were. I wanted to portray an unusual love story that asks of the audience a degree of sophistication that’s not normally asked of an audience. I think of it as a triple helix: the love story, the physics story, and the medical story. I figured if these could be woven together we can create something unprecedented.”

Unprecedented, indeed.

1 Comment
Dave over 9 years ago

Great article! A supermassive plot-line --should not be taken lightly.