If someone asked you to name a scientific genius, you’d probably say Albert Einstein. If you had to name a second genius, chances are your answer would be Stephen Hawking. These two are the real-life, brand-name theoretical physicists we non-scientists can identify. Einstein died in 1955, so Hawking is our go-to, living, breathing mastermind. The fact his body is paralysed by motor neurone disease (MND) seems like a cruel irony, but is that just how we describe something we fear? We make stories and think in terms of balances, ironies and destinies. Maybe that’s no more than how we like to bring sense to our lives.
Hawking is 73 now and has spent a lifetime on an immensely larger story as he works on understanding the universe and its laws. He first caught the imagination of the public with his best-selling book A Brief History of Time (1988). His mission in writing it, was to popularise the kind of science he was doing. His publisher famously warned him that for every equation he used in his book, he would halve his sales. He heeded those words and sold 10 million copies. He has now become something of a science celebrity. He communicates via a tablet and computer, both of these and his smart wheelchair, are sponsored by the Intel company. He appears, as himself, in live action and animated television shows. There’s never been anyone quite like Hawking with his unusual place in our culture.
My point, and I do have one, is this: as much as this new feature film celebrates the life of an extraordinary and unique human being, I wonder if it misses out something essential. Namely, the science. The science is in the very DNA of this man, he is a hero to millions for this reason, yet there’s not a great deal of it here.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING is not, in fact, about the so-called “Theory of Everything” which is one of the labels used for the sort of work theoretical physicists do. The movie is based on another book, this one written by Jane Wilde Hawking entitled Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. The film starts with her meeting with Stephen during their student days in Cambridge in the early 1960s. The pair falls in love and marries. Hawking is diagnosed with MND just before he meets Wilde. The doctors of the day, say he has no more than two years to live. Wilde knew about Hawking’s disease almost from the beginning. He was only 21. As far they knew, Stephen was never going to make it to middle age.
This movie is a love story. Jane chooses to live with Stephen even as his body is deteriorating. The challenge to their relationship is immense. His status as an academic celebrity only adds to the hardships they suffer. The film may remind some of A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001) or even THE IMITATION GAME (2014) as it seeks to demonstrate what it’s like to be around serious intellectual power. The stages of Hawking’s disease are minutely and painfully recorded. In this way, this is an honest portrayal of a slow tragedy, that takes a lifetime to unfold. Or is it about a brilliant being who refuses to knuckle under while showing us a universe we wouldn’t otherwise understand?
Eddie Redmayne plays Hawking and Felicity Jones plays Jane. Both are excellent. Redmayne has never been better, and Jones shines in what could easily have become a stereotypical scold part. Director James Marsh, who won an Academy Award for his excellent documentary MAN ON WIRE (2008), elicits fine performances from his entire cast. Anthony McCarten’s screenplay suffers from some of the usual episodic-ness of the biopic. It is also efficient when it needs to be and it provides a solid base to build the film on.
Movies are excellent at dealing in powerful concepts that stir the heart and THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING will move all but the toughest critic. As I suggested, it is decidedly not for people who want to know more about Hawking’s scientific life, that is a sideline; the romance is central to this movie. Like the removal of the equations from Stephen’s book, this movie doesn’t want to confuse, even momentarily, with complex concepts . Wilde’s book and therefore this film, is personal. What the Hawkings go through is incredibly difficult and it puts an unbearable pressure on them as a couple. This is a moving story about adversity, endurance and the limits of love.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING opens in wide release in Australia today. It runs for 125minutes. I rate it a 6/10.