A Look at The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything looks at the lives and relationship of Jane and Stephen Hawking. It spans years after the two year death sentence that Hawking had been given after his accident that would eventually confine him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

The Theory of Everything- Poster

Based off of a book written by Jane Wilde Hawking herself, the film takes care with its subjects and gives us a close at how their relationship developed as Stephen’s condition worsened. The film focuses more time on the family man as opposed to the physicist and shows how, despite not feeling whole, we still find hope in our lives.

The Theory of Everything- Biking

The film begins in Cambridge, England, 1963. We’re introduced to two pals biking to a party: Brian, played by Harry Lloyd, and our protagonist, Stephen Hawking, played by Eddie Redmayne.

The Theory of Everything- Jane and Stephen talk at party

Also at the party is Jane Wilde, played by Felicity Jones. From a friend, she learns that this Hawking is strange, but very clever. Jane and Stephen talk. He tells her that she’s a cosmologist and is looking for that one equation that explains everything in the universe. Sounds like a simple enough task.

We get a look at the busy life of Mr. Hawking. The next day, he and his colleagues are given a 10 question exam by professor and advisor, Dennis Sciama, played by David Thewlis. Stephen is also a member of the university’s rowing club as well.

At a pub that night, Stephen considers calling Jane, but no need for that since she’s just a few seats over. He plucks up the courage to talk to her and asks if she plays croquet. Typical pick-up lines.

The Theory of Everything- Stephen with Professor Dennis Sciama, played by David Thewlis

When Brian returns to their dorm, he finds that Stephen hasn’t been working on the exam. Stephen has bigger things in mind: he’s applied for a PhD in Physics. He soon gets to work on the questions. He soon returns to class, but was only able to get through nine of the questions. Professor Sciama takes Stephen into a room once occupied by greats like J.J. Thomson and Ernest Rutherford. It’s a room full of possibility and Stephen looks on in wonder at what he sees. Professor Sciama has a great opportunity for Stephen: travel with him to see Roger Penrose speak.

Elsewhere, Jane leaves church and finds Stephen waiting for her. It’s time to meet Stephen’s parents: Isobel, played by Abigail Cruttenden, and Frank, played by Simon McBurney. The parents ask about Jane’s passion- she loves art. More than that, she’s studying Spanish poetry. Jane and Stephen are also very different. After all, she goes to church, but Stephen doesn’t believe in that sort of higher authority. A physicist cannot allow his belief to be molded in the supernatural.

The Theory of Everything- Gala

Later that evening, they attend a gala. Stephen is not a dancer, but he is very observant. For example, he tells Jane to take a good look at the men’s shirts. They’re glowing in the light. The reason for that is due to Tide. As the two discuss their lives, Jane tells Stephen that she chose to major in Spanish poetry because she loves to travel. Soon, she refers to the creation of the Heaven and the Earth by quoting the first few scriptures of Genesis. The two join hands and dance.

Professor Sciama and Stephen attend Roger Penrose’s lecture on black holes. Penrose, played by Christian McKay, tells his audience that black holes are created when stars collapse. There’s no light whatsoever in a black hole and the stars become denser and denser. The end result is a space-time singularity.

When he returns, Stephen then relays this lecture to Jane, but with one change: what if you applied the theory of singularity to the entire universe? What if you reversed the process to see the beginning of time? It would be like winding back a clock. Stephen gets to work on his equation, with Professor Sciama advising him on the mathematics. Stephen is flying high right now, but as he leaves class and makes his way across campus, he trips and hits his head hard on the pavement.

Stephen is brought to a doctor for examination. The impact is immediate: Stephen has little to no movement in his legs and is unable to push in when the doctor asks him to. Then Stephen learns: he has a motor-neuron disease that destroys the cells that control the muscles, breathing and anything related to movement. In time, his muscles will begin to decay and he’ll have no voluntary movement. His life expectancy is two years and the doctor, unfortunately, cannot help. Stephen asks if his brain will be affected, and it won’t be, but soon, no one will know his thoughts.

Brian learns of Stephen’s disease when he returns to their dorm and Stephen tells him about Lou Gherig’s disease, though Brian isn’t up to date on baseball. Since Stephen isn’t taking Jane’s calls, she first learns about it when she runs into Brian at a pub. She comes to his dorm again- as he’d hidden from her the first time she stopped by- and tells him how much she missed him. He doesn’t discuss his condition, though. In fact, he wants her gone. Jane doesn’t leave that easily, though. She still owes him a game of croquet. If he doesn’t come, she’ll never come back.

The Theory of Everything- Stephen and Jane play croquet

The two play, though Stephen’s movement is inhibited due to the fall. His feet drag and he’s not as mobile as he had been. Croquet comes to a quick end. Stephen returns to his dorm and begins to wreck it. He still wants Jane gone, as he needs to work.

Stephen is still able to attend class, but now with the assistance of a cane.

Stephen’s father tells Jane that she doesn’t realize what lies ahead. She has the weight of science against her and this is a huge defeat for everyone. Jane is defiant. Everyone thinks that she doesn’t look strong, but if there’s still love, she and Stephen can and will fight this.

The Theory of Everything- First child

They do. The two are soon married following this, have a child and even move in together. Stephen now uses two canes to get around and must shuffle himself down the stairs at home.

However, some good news comes when he comes before Professor Sciama and two other professors who have been looking over his theory. There are holes and unanswered questions in a few chapters. But the section regarding black holes is just brilliant. Well done, Dr. Stephen Hawking. So what’s next for Dr. Hawking? Prove that time has a meaning.

At a celebratory dinner, everyone is ecstatic at Stephen being the first in his family to receive a doctorate. More problems arise. It’s hard enough for Stephen to eat, but now his hearing begins to go. Not feeling so hungry anymore, he excuses himself and struggles to make his way up the stairs.

The next day, Jane presents Stephen with a wheelchair. He makes his way into the chair and it does make moving around a lot smoother. That evening, as Jane is helping him with his sweater, he finds inspiration as he stares into the fireplace.

Following this, Stephen speaks with Professor Sciama about his revelation: what if a black hole wasn’t black at all, but just heat radiation. Once a star becomes a black hole, the hole itself will soon vanish.

Jane and Stephen eventually move up too an electric wheelchair, but the care begins to take its toll on Jane as she must contend with Stephen and not one, but now two children. Despite Stephen’s occasional issues, he wants no doctors. Frustration is clear in her tone, but she doesn’t let it consume her. Jane’s mother suggests that she return to church since she used to love singing.

She does and begins a friendship with the choir director, Jonathan Jones, played by Charlie Cox.

Stephen’s work continues. He has a new project: disprove his own PhD and show that the Earth itself has no boundaries or beginning. Therefore, God must die.

And on that note, we’ll stop.

Telling a story based on a real life figure can be challenging. You want to be respectful of the original source and people, but also not just tell what could be explained in a documentary. You also want to stay as close to the person’s life and not add in unnecessary drama for the same of tension. That’s the big problem I had with Jimi: All is By My Side. In concept, it sounds like an interesting film, but on-screen, the history was far from flawless. Stephen Hawking has been around for a long time and is still alive. There have been films made about his life already- none of which I have seen- and if The Theory of Everything just told us the same story, there’d be no point to trying to tell us a story we’ve already seen before.

The Theory of Everything- Stephen plays with kids

We know Stephen Hawking is a physicist. We know that he had been diagnosed with a motor neuron disease and confined to a wheelchair. However, there’s a lot more in-between that. What was his personal life like, before and after his accident? What drives him? The film doesn’t answer all of these questions, but it does give us a look at how Hawking and his family dealt with the disease that took more and more control of his body. Some folks say that the movie comes off too much like a melodrama instead of a close examination of Stephen Hawking, the physicist. Others say too little time is spent on Hawking’s life before his accident. I understand these perspectives, but I feel this movie is less about Hawking the physicist and more about his relationship with Jane Wilde.

The Theory of Everything- Marriage

Screenwriter Anthony McCarter and director James Marsh based this film primarily off of Jane Wilde Hawking’s book: Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking. Stephen Hawking himself has called the film “broadly true” and while there are some changes between fact and fiction, most of them don’t change my opinion of the movie. I repeat, most of them. For example, Jane first met Jonathan while caroling, not at a church. She felt that any wrong move could impact her marriage with Stephen. In the book, Jane and Stephen’s differences over religion and science started off as not a major problem, as was the case in the film, but over time, they became contentious. These changes aren’t too big of a deal to me personally.

The Theory of Everything- Spinning

A lot of the film’s messages and themes are handled very well. The movie examines how we overcome massive obstacles in our lives- obstacles that completely change us. It deals with the pain of loss, both physically and mentally, as seen through Stephen’s deteriorating condition and Jane’s growing frustration at having to be there for him while putting her life on hold. Though Stephen worsens over time, I never felt that the film treated him like a victim. We see a glimpse of his rage early on when he initially doesn’t want to see Jane anymore after he receives his diagnosis, but even as his condition worsens, he trudges on with his work. Much of what he wants and desires must be conveyed through facial expressions, which is where Eddie Redmayne’s performance shines. It also comes through in the direction, where some scenes are even set up and filmed like math equations- this comes at the hands of cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, who also worked on A Most Wanted Man earlier this year.

The Theory of Everything- Stephen speaks through device

Faith is also another central theme. Hawking believes in science and not, as he puts it, in a celestial dictatorial premise. He acknowledges that we are all different and, at one point, dose mention God in one of his works, but for the most part, he is a man of science, not religion. His helps come from those around him, but also through his own willpower. For example, during a family outing, Jane and Stephen’s father insist that he seek medical attention, but Stephen wants no doctors. Sure, I found it odd for a moment that a man of science wouldn’t trust modern medicine, but this is all a part of his struggle. He has challenges, but he never lets them deter him. The same applies to Jane, who does believe in a higher authority. Her faith pushes her, but also because she wants to prove, as she stated early on, that love and marriage could persevere, despite Stephen’s condition.

So while I agree with the criticism that the movie doesn’t spend a lot of time on the actual science and mathematics behind Stephen’s theory, I find that this movie is more about his personal life. If people come into this expecting a deep look at Hawking’s philosophies and theories, this movie is not for them.

The Theory of Everything- Stephen works on his theory

But if they’re looking for a film in which an actor transforms himself into Stephen Hawking with such an uncanny resemblance, look no further than the fantastic job done by Eddie Redmayne. It’s scary how Redmayne embodies Hawking. When Hawking is confined to a wheelchair and must army crawl his way up stairs, you can tell what he’s feeling and going through just by watching Redmayne’s facial expressions. Whether it’s the slightest twitch of his lip or the way his lead limps to the side when in a wheelchair, Redmayne isn’t just playing Stephen Hawking- he becomes him.

The Theory of Everything- Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking

Even before the accident, Redmayne’s eyes are full of wonder and possibility when he explains and works on his black hole theory. When he and Professor Sciama walk through a laboratory, Redmayne looks like a kid in a candy store, but instead of wanting to play with everything, he wants to pull it all apart to see what makes it work. There’s so much wonder and fascination when he talks about the universe that I felt Hawking would be fine spending the rest of his days exploring the wonders of the universe. Having never seen the other films about Stephen Hawking, I won’t try to compare Redmayne’s performance to them, but this was a very strong portrayal.

The Theory of Everything- Felicity Jones as Jane Wilde

And just as powerful in her performance is Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking. She’s not reduced to being a common housewife and she doesn’t have any sort of unnecessary angst or anger toward Hawking after having to help him so much. Jones shows a lot through her facial expressions and I could feel Jane’s growing frustration at having to put her life on hold. There’s a great scene near the middle where Jane is doing housework while Stephen and the kids play around. It’s brief, but she has a look on a face that defines what her life has become: a life put on hold. Jane has aspirations and wants to make something in her life, but she has to put that on hold and go at a slower pace because she has to be there for Stephen. Stephen, though his movement is limited, doesn’t stop with his studies and theories. By contrast, Jane has to care for him, meaning she must devote less time to her own life and needs.

The Theory of Everything- Stephen and Jane in bed

But what’s great about Jones’ performance is that she never lets Jane be consumed by the growing dissatisfaction in her life. When we first meet Jane, she’s fully confident about who she is and what she believes. She maintains her devotion to her faith and to Stephen, despite his illness, and never feels like she’s made the wrong choice in marrying him. This is both a strike for and against the film, but I’ll address that in a bit. I like the fact that Jane doesn’t see Stephen as the typical nerd because he’s into physics and she never looks down upon or thinks differently of him because of his devotion to science. In fact, it’s their differences that make them such a good fit for one another. Yes, their dance under the fireworks feels a bit cheesy and Hallmark for my taste, especially since they had not known each other for that long, but for the purpose of getting them together before Stephen’s accident, I’m fine with it.

Once the two are married, however, Jane almost becomes a background character, only there to help Stephen when he needs it. He doesn’t treat her like a servant and we know that he didn’t want any doctors, so it’s up to her to be there for him. She’s struggling, but I never got the sense that she was overwhelmed. As burdensome as it may be, Jane never treats Stephen like a burden. She made a choice to marry him and she’s going to stick with him…for as long as the narrative allows.

Now I don’t have too many issues with the film, but I do want to address a few qualms. I do agree that this film kind of skips over a lot of events too fast. Whether that’s for the sake of moving the plot along or the film just wanted to focus more on Jane and Stephen’s relationship, I don’t know. Yes, this is based off of a book written by Jane Hawking, but we never really get that much into Stephen’s head. Where did his interest in physics come from and how did he become so intelligent? That’s probably asking the film to start a lot earlier than it did, and that’s not necessary, but I do wish we got to learn more about Stephen Hawking: the physicist alongside Stephen Hawking: the married man.

A lot of his theories and the discussions on black holes are limited to a few scenes, but we never spend an extensive amount of time with him developing his theories. When Professor Sciama and his colleagues review Stephen’s theory, they tell him that parts of it are full of holes and unanswered questions. Okay, so what happened? As soon as we learn that they think his black hole theory is brilliant, the scene moves on and the story continues. The point I’m trying to make is that I wish the film had a bit more focus on his passion for physics. As is, we only get glimpses of it. Now I argue against this because the film’s focus seems to be on Jane and Stephen’s relationship, but given how impactful Stephen’s research became throughout the course of the film, I wish we saw he came to came up with these theories and what the public thought of them. The few times we see Stephen discussing his work, it’s during a group presentation. Smaller scenes of Stephen just working would have been nice.

I also feel that the filmmakers chose to take the safe route when it came to Jane and Stephen’s relationship. Again, to go back to Wilde’s book, Jane and Stephen’s relationship sometimes became a power struggle. Those sorts of struggles were toned down for the film and anything that could have been serious or damaging to their marriage is handled like a delicate glass sculpture. Jane develops feelings for Jonathan, but the most we see her do is approach his tent during an outdoors trip while Stephen is elsewhere. Stephen also develops a friendship with a caretaker, Elaine Mason, played by Maxine Peake, but this happens so late in the film that any fallout feels inconsequential.

The Theory of Everything- Wedding

Having to put your life on hold while taking care of your significant other is sure to cause tension at some point, but the film doesn’t touch on that. In fact, Jane and Stephen seem to weather their relationship almost too much like a fairy tale. During their wedding, the ceremony is filmed like a home movie, for example. The two rarely argue or go to bed angry at one another. At most, Jane blows off some steam, but she doesn’t explode. I’m not saying the two needed to be at each other’s throats, but a little tension would have been nice because I can’t imagine Jane enduring all of this without the slightest issue. As I mentioned, Jane never feels like she made the wrong choice. I’m glad she’s showed commitment, a bit of friction would have made this marriage a bit more interesting. What we got is still good, but their love is far from perfect and I wanted the film to explore both the positives and negatives in more detail.

These strikes do not detract from my enjoyment of the film. The biggest strength of The Theory of Everything comes through the amazing chemistry and believability of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen and Jane Hawking. Redmayne in particular becomes Hawking and instead of just playing the man, he embodies him. Despite Stephen’s accident and Jane having to sidetrack her life, their devotion to one another exemplifies what Hawking meant when he tells an audience that there is no boundary to human endeavors. A minor setback is not the end of the world. We adjust and keep on moving forward.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s