Aleteia

“The Theory of Everything” Explains Hawking’s Life and Loves

Courtesy of Working Title Films
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With more romance than science, there’s real chemistry here.

So you say you don’t quite have a handle on singularities, the mechanics of black holes, quantum fluctuations or the wave function theory of the universe? Well, not to worry, you don’t have to know any of that egghead stuff to watch “The Theory of Everything.” This new biopic detailing the relationship between famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane, actually has precious little to do with the workings of the universe and much more to do with the workings of the heart.

That’s really no big surprise considering the primary source material for the screenplay comes from Jane’s memoirs rather than Stephen’s. The former Ms. Wilde mastered in European literature, after all, and not physics. That’s where the movie begins, with both Jane and Stephen in college, having a meet­-cute at a social function. Jane has been dragged to the party by friends hoping to set her up with someone physically suitable, but she is immediately drawn to the more intellectually stimulating Stephen, a brilliant, though somewhat lackadaisical, science student.

Rather than engage in trivial banter, the two immediately begin to discuss more weighty matters, including the young Hawking’s insistence that there is no God, a belief that will become a lifelong point of contention for the staunchly Anglican Jane. The only thing cosmologists worship, Stephen insists, is the idea of discovering one scientific theory that will unify all things.

On the cusp of formulating his first major thesis regarding black holes, Hawking is informed by doctors that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and is given two years to live. Despite this seeming death sentence, Jane still insists on getting married, ignoring the protestations of family members and Stephen himself who, ever the scientist, insists her declarations of love must be a false conclusion.

The film moves rather briskly from there, hitting upon the highlights and low points of the pair’s thirty-year marriage. Even as Stephen’s fame increases, his body deteriorates, putting more and more of a strain on Jane as she takes on the burdens of being a wife, mother, nurse and secretary. Seeking some outlet of her own, Jane joins the church choir where she meets Jonathan Hellyer Jones, the man whom she will eventually develop romantic feelings for. The marriage finally dissolves when Stephen falls in love with one of his nurses.

It’s all pretty standard by­-the­-book romantic drama material, and with less capable actors, the whole affair could easily sink into Lifetime movie territory. Fortunately, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones turn in career-making performances. Redmayne is a cinch for an Academy Award nomination, not only for perfectly capturing the tics and contortions that come with Hawking’s ailment, but also for managing to convey complex emotions with nothing but the movement of his eyes. Really, the only downside to his performance is that in the early scenes he distractingly looks like a young Austin Powers, but that passes quickly. In a just world, Jones would also earn a nomination for her portrayal of the heroically stoic Jane, but the performance is so understated, so very British, it may sadly pass beneath the Academy’s radar.
 

Alas, the performances can’t hide all of the film’s problems. Like most biopics of beloved pop culture personalities, “The Theory of Everything” polishes up some of the rough edges of its characters. Take Hawking’s evangelical atheism for example, which in reality displays the modern celebrity scientist’s arrogant dismissal of anyone whose ideas they feel are unworthy, but in the movie is treated as little more than a cute quirk.

“I have a slight problem with the celestial dictatorship premise," Hawking says charmingly while conversing with Jane. In real life, the proper response to this would be, “Well, so does the Church. That's why she’s never taught any such notion of God in the history of ever, which you would know if you actually took the time to study the topic instead of blithely dismissing it.” In the film, though, the comment simply gets a giggle and a roll of the eyes from Jane. The movie is as unwilling to confront the superficiality of Hawking’s atheism as it is to delve into the complexities of his scientific theories.

The relationship between the Hawkings is also spruced up a bit as well. It doesn’t take too much time on Google to learn that the breakup of their marriage was hardly the congenial affair depicted in the film. This isn’t a grievous an omission, though, as the alteration serves the movie’s determination to tell a story about the transcendence of love and respect in the face of overwhelming struggles. Which it accomplishes, more or less.

So, if you’re just interested in Hawking’s scientific theories and are looking for an exposition about gravity and worm holes and the like, you’d be better off skipping “The Theory of Everything” and going to see “Interstellar” instead. But if you’re in the mood for a beautifully acted gentle story about two people, one of whom just happens to be the world's most famous physicist, in an unusual situation struggling to make a relationship work, “The Theory of Everything” might just work for you. 

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