“THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING” — ★★★1/2 — Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, Christian McKay; PG-13 (some thematic elements and suggestive material); in general release
Early in “The Theory of Everything,” a college-aged Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) meets his future wife, Jane (Felicity Jones), at a party, and they quickly get into a discussion about religion. Jane attends the Church of England, but Hawking is a cosmologist, and thus, an “intelligent atheist.”
When Jane asks Hawking what he and his fellow cosmologists worship, he answers: a master equation that will explain the universe. A theory of everything.
That exchange sets up one of the recurring themes in this biopic from director James Marsh, but Stephen Hawking’s views on theology are just one element of a dynamic and insightful film.
Adapted from Jane’s own memoir, “The Theory of Everything” follows Hawking’s pursuit of his secular grail, framed by the story of their marriage and the health challenges that threatened to derail Hawking’s entire life. It is an insightful, romantic, charming and tragic film (and not just because you know Hawking will wind up in a robotic wheelchair by the end of it).
The timeline covers the stretch of Hawking’s life between his time in college through his marriage to Jane, his physical decline and on to his eventual celebrity as author of “A Brief History of Time,” which helped win him an offer of knighthood in the British Empire.
Through it all, Marsh manages a tactful balance. It’s a love story and a tragedy, but it’s also brainy without being eggheaded. One of the film’s great accomplishments is its thoughtful handling of the religious subplot. Told here, the issue was a source of tension between Hawking and his wife, but to Marsh’s credit, it’s presented in a way that doesn’t marginalize audiences on either side of the theological fence.
The film’s highlight may be Redmayne, who manages such delicacy in Hawking’s transition from gangly, awkward youth to the figure we recognize today that you never get the feeling he’s putting on a performance. From start to finish, through Hawking’s sickness and his health, Redmayne radiates an irresistible charm.
It helps that he isn’t a broadly recognized actor — though this film may change that. Putting someone like Daniel Day-Lewis in the role might elicit an excellent performance, but you would always know you were watching Daniel Day-Lewis. Still, that shouldn’t take away from what Redmayne accomplishes as the famous scientist.
Jones is properly sympathetic as Jane, who has to deal with a lot more than her husband’s declining health, and Harry Potter fans will be happy to see David Thewlis as Hawking’s professor/mentor Dennis Sciama.
Like many biopics, “Theory of Everything” presents the flaws of the subject as well as its strengths. Some audiences may cringe to see the film’s light portrayal of Hawking’s indulgence in pornography, not so much for its content as for the film’s seeming validation of the habit.
It’s a far cry from the warts-and-all portrayals of infidelity we see in similar biopics — “Ray” and “Walk the Line” spring to mind — but the sum effect is the same. By seeing all the dimensions of Hawking, good and bad, you get a figure that is more human and more relatable, almost because of the flaws.
Viewers may be surprised to see how much of the film centers on his relationship with his wife — again, it is based on her memoir — but the perspective gives a very human dynamic to his world of quantum physics and relativity. It also deepens the pain of the film’s darker turns, and underscores a film that celebrates the triumph of the human spirit as well as its failures.
“The Theory of Everything” is rated PG-13 for some thematic material and sexual content, but would have probably landed in PG territory if it weren’t for a few discreet flashes from Hawking’s adult magazines.
The Theory of Everything” is rated PG-13 for some thematic material and sexual content, but it would have probably landed in PG territory if it weren’t for a few discreet flashes from Hawking’s adult magazines.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.