The Theory of Everything: an amazingly lightweight romantic drama

James Marsh, “The Theory of Everything” (2014)

Despite the title, this biopic about English cosmologist Stephen Hawking is less about his work and its importance to science and more a fictionalised romantic drama about Hawking and his first marriage to Jane Wilde: the film is based on her memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. The movie’s structure is strictly chronological, starting in 1963 when Hawking first meets Jane at Cambridge University and follows the couple as they cope with and try to overcome the considerable obstacle of Hawking’s motor neurone disease which not only affects Hawking himself but Jane’s life and the lives of those whom they meet, all the way to 1990 when they separated. Naturally we expect that Jane gives up her own career ambitions to care for Hawking and their three children, and she does, very dutifully … maybe too much so to her cost and that of the marriage. But other obstacles arrive that the couple does not foresee, obstacles that also derail the marriage: Hawking’s own fame as a physicist and cosmologist which means that he must travel to receive awards, make speeches and give lectures; Jane’s attempt to have a life away from looking after people, which attempt brings her into contact with another man, Jonathan Hellyer Jones,  for whom she develops romantic feelings; and Hawking’s need to have constant care as his condition deteriorates, which need brings another woman into his life with whom he eventually elopes.

The film is basically a study of character and a relationship and in this it excels. Both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones do excellent work in portraying the Hawkings, infusing both characters with warmth, individuality and, in Redmayne’s portrayal, humour and cheekiness if not that much of the intellect that sent the original Hawking to university at the age of 17 years. Jones’ Jane comes away as a saintly figure whose conventional and conservative outlook contrasts with her husband’s curiosity, wit and sharpness: no surprise then that these two individuals with not much in common in their personalities will eventually drift apart. Redmayne and Jones receive ample support from the rest of the cast, especially from Charlie Cox as Jonathan Hellyer Jones. Emily Watson makes a brief surprise appearance as Jane’s mother in a role that makes no demands on her considerable talent.

The cinematography is often glowing and lovely with soft lines. It is clever in the way a number of scenes play out in ways that reflect and even demonstrate some of the discoveries and predictions Hawking makes in his theoretical work and calculations on black holes and their effects on the stars they come across.

As a romantic drama, the film fares adequately in showing how a devastating chronic illness can affect a relationship and accentuate the differences between couples in surprising ways. Caring for Hawking and their three children not only requires Jane to give up her own ambitions and dreams and strains her relationship with her husband, it also throws her into a mental straitjacket beyond which she cannot see ahead what Hawking’s increasing celebrity and the increased nursing he needs might mean for them both and the marriage’s survival. Hawking’s stubborn determination that he be treated as a normal person not deserving any more consideration than other people would does not help either him or his wife: the result is an increasingly fragile relationship that totters and collapses once carers have to be employed to help the Hawkings. Astonishingly the Hawking children are mere wallpaper figures whose existence apparently has no effect on their parents’ increasingly fraught relationship though a scene in a car suggests the Hawkings had different ideas about bringing up their children – Hawking himself appears like an overgrown playmate to his kids – and must have come to blows over disciplining them. The film fails to dwell very much on the adults’ different spiritual beliefs – he, an atheist and she, a devout Christian – and how the professor’s atheism and work in cosmology challenges, even threatens his wife’s religious faith and their relationship.

The general respectful approach the film adopts towards the Hawkings ensures that the couple is shown mostly in a good light – even Hawking’s elopement with the nurse occurs off-screen – and the whole project ends up rather staid and lacking in spark. In failing to grapple with its subject, warts and all, the film comes off as amazingly lightweight.