The Theory of Everything's title strongly suggests a biopic of its widely admired subject, cosmologist and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who began his career with the search for a single equation that might explain the universe. But this second feature from director James Marsh (who made the Oscar-winning documentary Man On Wire) barely scratches the surface of Hawking's mind-blowing theories, instead focusing on the scientist's courtship of literature student Jane Wilde and their ensuing marriage and family life. While lavishly produced and full of strong performances, The Theory of Everything delivers an ordinary love story that should appeal least to those who consider themselves fans of Hawking and his ideas.
What sets the true-life Hawking-Wilde love story apart is the courage and character required of both parties after Hawking received a diagnosis of motor neuron disease at age 21 and was told he had two years to live. Wilde chose to marry Hawking despite that bleak prognosis. Now 72, Hawking defied the odds, and he's quick to say he couldn't have done it without Wilde's early support. As portrayed in The Theory of Everything, their story becomes one of the same internal strains and external threats that test all marriages.
It's hard to imagine a studio pitch for The Theory of Everything that wouldn't include the phrase "holiday Oscar movie," as there's scarcely another way to get this level of funding for a romantic drama. The couple's first kiss on a bridge is beautifully shot, and that's before the camera moves up and out in the kind of attention-grabbing crane shot that characterizes opulent Hollywood musicals from the 1930s. Marsh and crew shot much of the film at Hawking's alma mater, England's University of Cambridge, even gaining access to the Cavendish Laboratory where the neutron was discovered and the atom split. It lends an air of authenticity to what is essentially a period piece spanning the early 1960s to the 1980s.
The real Oscar bait arrives in the form of young British actors Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) and Felicity Jones (The Invisible Woman) as Hawking and Wilde. Redmayne handles the gradually encroaching disease gracefully, getting across subtle physical changes as Hawking's condition worsens. He even learned to isolate the few facial muscles Hawking uses to control a computer-based speech synthesizer. Jones embodies the principled passion of storied young love, later evolving into a clear-eyed and unsentimental woman. The film is based on Jane Wilde Hawking's memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, and both Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (Death of a Superhero) are careful to give the author her due.
Hawking endorsed the project in his own way by allowing use of his real-life synthesized voice in the movie after seeing its debut at this year's Toronto Film Festival. Maybe he was pleased by his unlikely new status as a romantic lead in a major film. If only his ideas had received such tribute.