'The Theory of Everything': Toronto Review

The Theory of Everything
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Although this portrait of the world’s most famous living physicist’s first marriage lacks big highs, the lows are few and far between

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones star as Stephen and Jane Hawking in this academic-world set biopic from James Marsh

There is a cloying bit towards the end of The Theory of Everything when Professor Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) declaims to a lecture theater of rapt listeners that, “There is no boundary to human endeavor. Where there is life, there is hope.” What sticks out about the scene is not the sentiment itself so much, but the fact that the rest of the film it’s in manages mostly to avoid such saccharine cliches.

A biopic portrait of the marriage between theoretical physicist Hawking and Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones, The Invisible Woman), The Theory of Everything is a solid, duly moving account of their complicated relationship, spanning roughly 25 years, and made with impeccable professional polish. However, if the syrupy lows are blessedly few and far between, the highs are not much more frequent. As such, it’s something of a disappointment for fans of James Marsh, director of such excellent documentaries as Man on Wire and Project Nim and the features Shadow Dancer, The King and one third of the Red Riding trilogy.

Given the stars are relative newcomers, distributors will need to work hard to exploit awareness of Hawking and boost the film’s triumph-over-adversity message to gain traction with audiences and awards bodies over the coming months. It’s unlikely to generate the same high profile as, say, A Beautiful Mind, another notable biopic about a scientist with a disability and a long-suffering wife.

Based on the memoir written by Jane Hawking, nee Wilde, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, and adapted by novelist-screenwriter Anthony McCarten (Death of a Superhero), the script feels at pains to be fair to and honor its still-living subjects. Hawking has achieved an unlikely-seeming international celebrity (he’s even cameoed on The Simpsons) after writing the science-for-laymen bestseller A Brief History of Time which explains his theories of cosmology and the titular Theory of Everything, a still incomplete mathematical framework that attempts to reconcile quantum physics and Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Proceeding in doggedly linear, chronological fashion, the action starts in 1963 when Hawking had just begun his Ph.D at Cambridge University. (Locations around the actual town are used in abundance, adding authenticity.) At a party, he meets Jane, a major in Romance Languages and Literature, and soon the two are batting eyes at one another as they politely discuss religion, science and poetry. The courtship gathers pace while Hawking continues to impress his tutor Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis) with his mathematical insight. However, gradually what superficially seems like gawky clumsiness – spilling cups, falling down in the quad – turns out to be evidence of motor neuron disease, a condition related to the ice-bucket-challenge-prompting illness ALS.

A doctor (Adam Godley) tells Hawking he probably has no more than two years to live, and he goes into an understandable spiral of despair. But Jane, who has resources of grit that might not be immediately apparent under her polite English-rose persona, refuses to walk away, and soon the two are married and starting a family.

The core story poses a number of tricky challenges for the filmmakers: how to do justice to Hawking’s scientific achievements without turning it into an illustrated lecture or lots of shots of him writing things on a blackboard with a furrowed brow; how to balance that material with drama about the marriage, especially since Stephen’s disability makes it increasingly hard for him to communicate, putting a greater burden on Jane to carry the narrative; and most importantly, how to make the ultimate dissolution of their marriage not feel like a major downer.

It’s to Marsh and his collaborators' credit that the film meets those challenges as well as it does. The science bit gets somewhat slighting treatment, but in truth it’s almost impossible stuff to summarize in the first place, and the use of some stylized visuals of an eye in extreme close up and a few visual effects do well enough to stand for Hawking’s big inspiration about black holes and the origins of the universe. In fact, eyes make for a compelling leitmotiv throughout, especially when Hawking can only communicate with glances and blinks. The texture of academic life is beautifully evoked, and it says a lot for the movie that arguably its most moving moment is the scene where Hawking passes the oral exam (or viva) for his Ph.D.

As his disability increases, the focus shifts more to Jane and how she faces the challenges of caring for Stephen while she gradually falling in love with choirmaster Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), a sweet subplot that’s also told through significant glances and shimmering pseudo-Super 8 montage sequences that show the evolution of this emotional menage a trois.  

Facing the physical challenges of depicting Hawking’s disability, Redmayne pulls it off with enormous grace and endurance, and it’s not just the assist from prosthetic teeth and ears that helps him create an impeccable mimicry of the real man. Jones almost has the harder part in a way, even though she doesn’t have to play someone with a physical handicap, and she holds her own well, although the aging makeup and costumes are less persuasive in the final stretch.

Ace cinematographer Benoit Delhomme's lush, intricately lit compositions add a splendor that keeps the film consistently watchable, even in the slower stretches. Composer Johann Johannsson piano-based score has a dainty precision with a ineffable scientific quality about it, as befits someone who once composed an album called IBM 1401, A User's Manual.

Production companies: A Focus Features presentation of a Working Title production

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, David Thewlis, Harry Lloyd, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, Christian McKay, Maxine Peake

Director: James Marsh

Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten, based on a book by Jane Hawking

Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce, Anthony McCarten

Executive producers: Amelia Granger, Liza Chasin, David Kosse

Director of photography: Benoit Delhomme 

Production designer: John Paul Kelly

Costume designer: Steven Noble

Editor: Jinx Godfrey

Music: Johann Johannsson

Movement director: Alex Reynolds

Sales: Focus Features

No rating, 123 minutes