On the surface, a film like The Theory of Everything courts a certain deal of cynicism. It’s hardly the film’s fault; blame instead the seemingly endless spate of inspirational-aspiring biopics that rear their heads around this particular time of year like clockwork. It’s a film about a beloved, sometimes troubled real-life figure, one who overcame no shortage of adversities both physical and intellectual en route to pioneering the ways in which we understand and explore space as a species. But what makes Theory spark isn’t the retelling of Stephen Hawking’s younger years, nor the simultaneous agony and ecstasy of watching him conquer the known limits of the universe even as his body fails him. It’s the film’s refusal to wallow, replacing the usual audience-gratifying agony of an endearing protagonist with a vision of a man whose body ultimately offered too few limits to hold him back.
As a young man, Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) was a shy sort, making his way through Oxford with an ease that stunned his classmates. What he possessed in raw, to-that-point unshaped genius, though, was offset by an inability to fully relate to his classmates. In these scenes, and for the most part throughout, the film avoids a mawkish retelling of the tragedies of his life; Hawking is very clearly a man only contained by his body, which fumbles and stumbles through most personal encounters long before anything notably bad happens. When he meets Jane (Felicity Jones), for instance, he’s so taken with her at a social that when he later tries to ask her out at a bar, next to her boyfriend at the time, it hardly phases him. It’s just an obstacle that needs thinking around, a different kind of equation.
And then, he’s diagnosed with ALS at 21. If there’s any point where Theory verges on hagiography it’s this one, but director James Marsh (Man on Wire) keeps the film moving without indulging in the kind of pity that Hawking himself has eschewed in life. As his speech becomes almost incomprehensibly slurred and he becomes ever more dependent on the kindness of those around him to finish exploring the parameters of the known universe before his originally allotted two years are up, Hawking is driven by the singular pursuit of conquering what cannot be known, of a simple equation that explains the greatest mysteries of our place in the universe.
The parallel between the grandeur of his vision and the relative myopia of his approach to it is one of the film’s running motifs and a significant one. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme does spectacular, lush work painting the film in radiant flashes of light and color, filling almost every scene with a warmth that exudes life. The grass is impossibly green, the fireworks at Oxford’s year-end ball as stunning to the eye as they must’ve been to Stephen and Jane on their first proper date. This is what Marsh’s film does best, after all. It’s very much a detailed chronicle of Hawking’s struggles en route to greatness, in the vein of a great many films of similar pedigree, but what Marsh finds is the screaming humanity in it all.
This power can be greatly attributed to the film’s leads, who deliver two performances as good as any you’ll see this year. Like Hawking, Redmayne is charmingly unsentimental about his condition throughout. He slowly conveys the deterioration early, with a spilled coffee cup here and some shaky equation writing on a chalkboard there, but when it worsens there’s little of the agony porn that biopics about embattled people of import tend to indulge in. Rather, Redmayne finds the good humor in a man who’s steadily made the best of a rather terrible situation throughout his whole life; as he declares in a late speech, “there should be no boundary to human endeavor.” And there isn’t. Even as he’s rendered essentially immobile, save for the timely development of the electric wheelchair, Hawking is only inhibited by the inconvenience of having to communicate through alternate channels.
Jones, as his wife and mother of Hawking’s three children (the film jokingly acknowledges the logistics of that once, and then dutifully keeps its gaze away throughout), is every bit as moving. Where his struggle is forcibly internal, hers is much more powerful. From the beginning she’s treated as unrealistic, few understanding her true comprehension of what lies ahead. She remains fiercely loyal, seeing the brilliance in the man she loves even as more and more of him slips away. And even when their relationship becomes almost more motherly than romantic, the film illustrates with lusciously shot flashbacks and digressions how they were able to build a life together, even within the limitations assigned to them. When she meets Jonathan (Charlie Cox), a handsome church choir director, there’s little of the expected melodrama. Stephen understands that there are certain needs he’ll never fully be able to satisfy, but Jane knows well the impasse Jonathan leaves her at. She chooses the life she has with Stephen, willingly, but is all too aware of the sacrifices it mandates.
The Theory of Everything is deftly funny on occasion and lustrously made, key virtues for a film where the plot is largely summarized on Wikipedia already. But here is a movie that casts aside the cynicism of films about important figures acknowledged earlier, one that immerses you in the all-too-human lives of its protagonists rather than politely escorting you through a series of dioramas about his doctorate, his health scares, his second life via the miracle of modern voice computing, etc. Via Redmayne and Jones, Stephen and Jane make for a passionate exploration of love and the many forms it can and sometimes must take over the years. And despite what the film yearns for, there is no turning back the clocks, a cruel irony for a man who reshaped the way we collectively understand time and our place in the universe. But it was never Hawking’s goal to control time. He’s already transcended it.