The great British scientist Stephen Hawking is already such an international icon – he’s even been portrayed on “The Simpsons”! – that for him to be the subject of a movie at this point seems almost reductive. “The Theory of Everything,” starring Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and Felicity Jones as Jane Wilde, his first wife, is highly uneven, but at least it doesn’t glamorize Hawking’s life or turn it into a paean to endurance. His physical degeneration from motor neuron disease, which shut down his muscular control and ultimately rendered him unable to speak on his own, is depicted without undue pathos.
Diagnosed while studying for his PhD at Cambridge in the mid-1960s, he was given only two years to live. He is now 72. His ideas about space-time and black holes revolutionized modern thinking about the universe. His layman’s science book “A Brief History of Time” is perhaps the most famously unread bestseller ever.
In the popular imagination, the Hawking iconography is keyed to the image of this slumping, speechless man spinning paradigm-shifting cosmic theories from his wheelchair. There is an element of morbidity in this sort of hero-worship that James Marsh, who directed “The Theory of Everything” from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, generally avoids. (Source material is Jane Hawking’s 2007 memoir, “Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen,” written 12 years after their 20-year marriage ended). If only the film weren’t rendered in that flavorless way endemic to biopics (especially British ones) of the famous.
Jones is terrific – she has a funny, offhand moment when she rues the way Stephen’s electronic voice simulator makes him sound American – but the chief reason to see the film is for Redmayne. This is the first full-scale nonmusical role he’s been handed in the movies and it ranks almost up there with Daniel Day Lewis’s performance in “My Left Foot,” though that role allowed Day Lewis far greater emotional latitude. Redmayne, like Day Lewis, is often at his most physically charged when he is the most physically confined. The early courtship scenes between Stephen and Jane, full of gawky gallantry, only emphasize Stephen’s loss when the disease hits. And yet the triumph of Redmayne’s performance is that Stephen, after he becomes incapacitated, is the same eccentric, quizzical quester that he was when he was sprinting across the Cambridge campus. He is such a brainiac that his search for a “theory of everything” – a unification of quantum physics and Einstein’s theory of relativity – overrides, triumphantly, his debility.
The filmmakers, fearing perhaps that we might get snarled up in cosmological conundrums, play down the physics. I wish they hadn’t; they underestimate the audience’s own avidity for scientific voyaging (as demonstrated by the success of such PBS series as “NOVA” and “Cosmos”).
I also wish the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to provide a counterweight to the cosmology in the form of a running argument between Jane and Stephen about religion. (She’s Anglican; he’s an atheist.) Doesn’t the confluence of his difficult life and hers already provide an ample arena for conflict? “The Theory of Everything” doesn’t need this window dressing. It has Redmayne. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material.)