- Written by
- Anthony McCarten
- Directed by
- James Marsh
- Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones
Marriages are mysterious things, even to those of us inside of them, but some are more mysterious than others.
Two years after Stephen Hawking published his bestselling 1988 cosmology book A Brief History of Time, though all but paralyzed with a motor neuron disease, he left his wife and the mother of his three children, the former Jane Wilde, to shack up with his nurse, Elaine Mason. Some time later, Jane married an old family friend who apparently had been waiting in the wings, her choirmaster Jonathan Hellyer Jones.
Even if you were never the sort who cared what goes on behind others' closed doors, the Hawkings' drama is catnip. And if you'll excuse the pun, you could say it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling.
Time is at the heart of Hawking's work, and it animates The Theory of Everything, too. Early on in director James Marsh's brainy, romantic take on the Hawkings' unusual relationship, the young PhD student in physics is breathlessly explaining his notion of winding back the cosmic clock. "What if I reversed the process [of the universe's expansion], all the way back, to see what happened at the beginning of time?" he muses to his girlfriend. The lovers link arms and spin like a carousel, giggling from their proximity to Hawking's heady theories and each other. They are tipsy on the promise of life. Marsh aims for something similar, hoping to wind back the clock to free Hawking from our received image of him as a remote genius who speaks to us through a computer-generated voice.
Still, we brace ourselves for what we know is to come. And soon enough, Hawking trips, visits the doctor and receives a chilling diagnosis: He has perhaps two years to live. Jane marries him anyway and they make a life together. She is there for him, day and night, in sickness and in health, even as Stephen becomes a black hole, sucking in all of the energy and attention that strays into his vicinity. As the years pass and he gains greater renown, Jane remains by his side, managing house and home and her own muted desires.
If Hawking didn't exist in real life, a canny screenwriter might have invented him: A sly physics genius who slacked his way through life until given a death sentence, an atheist who wooed and won a devout Anglican co-ed as his wife, a prisoner of his own body whose quicksilver mind let him transcend the heavens above: He is a metaphor in waiting, a real-life inspirational hero finally getting his Hollywood close-up. As Hawking, Eddie Redmayne collapses slowly in the sort of transformation the Oscar voters love, from a gawky Oxbridge scholar in oversized glasses into the familiar crumpled professor tapping away at the mouse of his rudimentary voice synthesizer. He and Felicity Jones's Jane have a delicate, authentic chemistry.
If the film veers toward the mawkish on occasion, it is also happy to take the piss out of Hawking: At one point, he and his buddies get drunk and they press him on how a man with motor neuron disease managed to be the biological father of three children. (Erections, he explains, are the province of an involuntary nervous system.)
There are plenty of these moments, and perhaps there is too much story to tell in one go, so maybe Marsh can be forgiven for not knowing quite when to wrap up the proceedings: The film seems about to conclude at least twice before it finally does. If he overplays the symbolism of time, especially with a gratuitous reverse-time montage of the film's highlights at the end, you probably won't object too much: You'll be too busy dabbing your eyes, quietly astonished that you care this much about a theoretical physicist you barely knew.