Film Review: A Glowing Intimate Universe in ‘Theory of Everything’

Theory2“Science is not only a disciple of reason but, also, one of romance and passion.” – Stephen Hawking

It sometimes feels like everyone knows something about English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, mathematician and best-selling author (to name some but not all his vocations) Stephen Hawking. “A Brief History of Time” (1988) achieved phenomenal worldwide success in the pre-Internet/Social Media era, and the now-former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University (a chair once occupied by Isaac Newton which Hawking held for 30 years) was already renowned in academic and scientific circles well before then, with heaps of honors and a predicted energy release from black holes named after him.

Now, with more books, honors – including our nation’s Presidential Medal of Freedom – and regular references to (and appearances by) him on Big Bang Theory and other contemporary media, Hawking is undoubtedly one of the most recognized figures on Earth. And screenwriter-producer Anthony McCarten, with the kind of astronomical gumption that fuels great projects, has sought for several years to bring a very different portrait of Hawking to the public. That’s why we have The Theory of Everything in all its shimmering glory.

Theory5We’ve heard the mechanized voice and seen the small man in a wheel chair placed there by a motor-neuron disorder that kills most of its sufferers quite quickly; at 72 Hawking has outlived his initial diagnosis by 51 years. Now McCarten, director James Marsh (Academy Award-winner for Best Documentary Feature Man On Wire) and an impeccable cast led by strong awards-season contenders Eddie Redmayne (Les Misérables, Savage Grace) and Felicity Jones (Like Crazy, The Invisible Woman) take us back to the time when Hawking wasn’t in that chair and his voice wasn’t supplied electronically.

Hawking (Redmayne) is a young fun-loving (but undeniably brilliant) student when he meets Jane Wilde (Jones) in 1963. The two fall in love just as the seemingly life-ending news that his disease will rob him of speech and movement before he dies in about two years is given to the budding mathematician and theoretical physicist. But Hawking is resolved not only to complete a doctorate but also find a “simple, eloquent explanation” for the universe: literally the theory of everything.

Theory4The pair are determined to fight on, and they marry, have children and deal with the great challenges of Hawking’s condition side-by-side. As the years go on, though, cracks start to appear in this once feel-good story; love – or at least love beset by great strain and turmoil – may not necessarily conquer all.

The film is inspired by Jane Hawking’s 2008 memoir “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen” and contains the same honest but loving appraisal that book provided. Much is already being made, as speculation mounts about various upcoming awards, of the excellent physical performance given by Redmayne, who chronicles the deterioration of Hawking’s body so believably one would think the actor had asked the professor himself to step in for him. (In an Nov. 18 Facebook page post Hawking wrote, “I thought Eddie Redmayne portrayed me very well … He spent time with ALS sufferers so he could be authentic. At times, I thought he was me.”) And his work is certainly worthy of any honors that may come his way.

But the memoir (by an accomplished person who holds a PhD in medieval Spanish poetry) and this film focus much-deserved attention on the private personal and professional stresses and sacrifices his wife made while Hawking’s star ascended in the public sphere, and Jones’ eloquent, and often appropriately subtle, gestures and movements as she delivers McCarten’s straight-forward and often witty dialogue are no less impressive than Redmayne’s characterization. I hope her work isn’t overlooked by some while they’re admiring his contributions; I’ll call that the “Rain Man Effect” after the 1988 film where laurels for Dustin Hoffman’s incredible performance as an autistic savant often left out just how impressive Tom Cruise was as his (very reluctant) caregiver.

Theory1There’s wonderful support from an ever-dependable cadre of actors too – Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney and David Thewlis, among others, aren’t just there for dramatic dressing. A scene where Watson’s character (as Jane’s mother) reacts to the obvious distress of Jones’ character’s difficult situation is a two-hander gem, among several examples that The Theory of Everything may be led by Jones and Redmayne but wouldn’t be nearly as good without Watson and the rest.

Every production aspect of this celestial motion picture is sublime, from the gentle glow of Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography (that among other things will have you never looking at a cup of coffee the same way again) to Steven Noble’s prodigious array of costumes chronicling three decades of fashion (from the 1960s through the 1980s). Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson contributes his wonderfully melancholic music to a score that has quite a mix – a soundtrack that has Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave” alongside Richard Wagner’s “Die WalkureAct 1: Vorspiel isn’t a usual one.

Theory6There have been complaints – typical for an historical film of this type – that The Theory of Everything is lacking because it condenses history for dramatic effect or fails to follow the straight-and-narrow when it comes to detailing the scientific breakthroughs that propelled Hawking to international notoriety. Well, even the great professor has admitted his search for a theory of everything is likely a fruitless one – none of us attains perfection in our pursuits, and we have no right to that anyway.

We don’t get everything everyone might desire out of such a feature, of course. But with McCarten’s flowing script, Marsh’s clear-eyed direction and the aforementioned gifts from their colleagues we get a fictionalized peek (yes, just a peek – there’s more in Jane Hawking’s book and elsewhere, though that’s how it is and should be with a movie) at a very human Hawking that makes his accomplishments all the greater. We get a love story where passion, poignancy, triumph and tragedy collide to create celestially beautiful cinema.

Theory3The Theory of Everything is now playing at select theaters including Regal Green Hills Stadium 16 (3815 Green Hills Village Dr.) in Nashville. Click here for times and tickets. This film is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material; 123 min. Click here for the film’s official website.

*Photos by Liam Daniel courtesy Focus Features.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).