“The Theory of Everything” is so properly British. Its treatment of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s first marriage to Jane Wilde is so restrained, so reserved, so decent, so stiff upper lip. It avoids any dramatic tension, even though there are scenes dying for one. It doesn’t want to offend.
Based on Jane Hawking’s, nee Wilde, memoir “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” James Marsh’s film shows very little interest on Hawking’s theories and evolution as a scientist. This is, plainly, the story of a marriage and the toll a caregiver pays when taking care of the needs of a loved one, especially one as brilliant as Hawking. It is also the story of a woman who lives in the shadow of a great man. Anthony McCarten’s script and Marsh’s direction never digs deep; they prefer to follow the rules and conventions of the traditional biopic. We have to rely on Felicity Jones’ performance as Jane to tease out those truths. Her facial expressions, her body language, tell the story far more efficiently. They hint at the joys and the frustration of living more than two decades with an ailing genius, at her sacrifices and commitment.
Jane and Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) meet at a party in Cambridge in the early 60s. He is a gangly, timid, yet outspoken Ph.D. student in cosmology…and an atheist. She is a devout Christian and is studying Spanish mediaeval literature. Together, they are proof that opposites do, indeed, attract. And so begins a delightful courtship that’s threatened to be derailed when Stephen falls face down on a Cambridge sidewalk, is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and given two years to live. Confident that she can help Stephen beat this disease, she ignores the concerns and advice of both his family and hers, and marries him.
So far, so good. But compressing 25 years of married life in a two-hour film isn’t easy and so McCracken and Marsh follow the path of many a biopic before them by hitting the most salient points of Stephen’s and Jane’s marriage: Hawkings’ slow physical deterioration (from clutches to wheelchair, from slurred to computerized speech); his pursuit of a simple equation that will explain the cosmos; Jane’s professional and personal sacrifices; the publication of Hawking’s best-selling book “A Brief History of Time”; Jane’s befriending of charismatic choirmaster and fellow caretaker Jonathan (Charlie Cox) and Stephen’s mischievous seduction of nurse Elaine, his second wife (whom he would divorce as well).
But even these last two events are played like a coy adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. Stephen and Elaine tease and flirt with each other while Jonathan and Jane gaze longingly at each other to then turn their faces away. It’s a delightful pas de deux that in the end delivers very little. Before their attractions to each other can be fully requited, Marsh and McCarten move quickly to the next plot point that needs to be checked off their list.
It falls on the actors’ shoulders to lift this film from the merely conventional. As Hawking, Redmayne delivers one of the most powerfully complex performances of his young career, one that partially recalls Daniel Day-Lewis’ equally powerful performance as disabled Irish writer Christy Brown in “My Left Foot.” All naughty smiles and manic energy at the beginning, we see this man wither away before our eyes. It’s a delicate balancing act for Redmayne, one that requires a complete immersion in the character, and the use of all his senses and instincts.
Redmayne and Jones are supported by an equally strong cast, from Simon McBurney as Stephen’s father to Harry Lloyd as his best friend. It’s a pity that the script wastes the talents of David Thewlis as Hawking’s mentor and Emily Watson as Jane’s mother. They are treated as mere filler; I am quite sure they played more of a role in Jane’s and Stephen’s lives than the movie allows them to.