Like Peas and Potatoes

The Theory of Everything
(UK/USA, 123 min.)
Dir. James Marsh, Writ. Anthony McCarten
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Simon McBurney, David Thewlis, Maxine Peake, Emily Watson.
Felicity Jones stars as Jane Wilde and Eddie Redmayne stars as Stephen Hawking.
Courtesy of eOne Films.
Stephen Hawking probably has one of the most recognizable voices in contemporary history, but few of us have ever heard him speak with his natural voice. The brilliant mind behind A Brief History of Time and other works that are far beyond my limited intellectual grasp, has nevertheless carried his voice throughout his career, making astonishing advances in scientific and philosophical theory, thanks to the computerized voicebox (a Simpsons success) that allowed him to share his work long after his body submitted to Lou Gehrig’s disease. His success is all the more extraordinary if one considers that the doctors gave him two years to live during his formative years at Cambridge almost fifty years ago.

The Theory of Everything dramatizes the biography of Stephen Hawking in a remarkably astute character study that centres on the love story between Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne, Les Mis) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones, The Invisible Woman). Director James Marsh and screenwriter Antony McCarten construct the film as a fine two-hander in which Stephen and Jane get along smartly from their immediately awkward courtship to their tumultuous life together in which Jane indefatigably commits herself to supporting and motivating Stephen through every stage of his studies and his journey with motor neuron disease. Stephen and Jane go together like quantum theory and general relativity—he studies science and she, arts; he’s an atheistic who believes in cosmology, while she devotedly goes to church on Sunday—but The Theory of Everything devises a beautiful dance around Hawking’s theories by showing that all concepts are, like love, relative and subject to trials. They’re like peas and potatoes, as Jane aptly provides a metaphor for the chaos of conflicting theories that somehow find harmony.

“The universe has no boundaries at all,” Jane continues, explaining Stephen’s work to their close companion Jonathan (Charlie Cox) although much of her husband’s work disproves her own beliefs. The Theory of Everything, however, extraordinarily uses the seeming limitlessness of Hawking’s ideas as the subtext for both his and Jane’s fierce determination. Jane can throw herself into Stephen’s science because she needs to believe that humans can bend the rules of science and take a brief medical diagnosis to infinity as she and Stephen defy his early death sentence. Similarly, The Theory of Everything takes Hawking’s conception of time—that idea of origins and new beginnings—as a metaphorical ticking clock marks Hawking’s own life and creates an underlying irony to his struggle with motor neuron disease.

Redmayne is truly a revelation in his ambitious performance as Stephen Hawking. Comparisons to Daniel Day-Lewis’s titanic role in My Left Foot have been marking Redmayne’s turn ever since The Theory of Everything first debuted at TIFF and the parallels have merit. Redmayne’s Hawking, like Day-Lewis’s Christy Brown, offers a difficult physical role for the actor as he recreates Hawking’s rapid degeneration from nimble student to a young man with near-paralysis. Redmayne conveys Hawking’s symptoms early on with subtle slips of the foot or twitches of the hand, but his performance remains as breathtakingly full of life once Hawking’s disease confines him to a wheelchair. It’s heart-wrenching to watch such a brilliant mind loses his ability to share his thoughts and words, but like Javier Bardem in The Sea Inside or Mathieu Almaric in The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, Redmayne’s performance defies the boundaries of his character’s body and conveys a wealth of empathy and humanity. Hawking’s wry sense of humour arises through the subtlety of Redmayne’s nuanced and seemingly limitless performance.

Jones is equally noteworthy as the strong-willed Jane. The Theory of Everything, based on Jane Hawking’s book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, gives Jane equal credit for driving Hawking and inspiring him to continuing reaching for the stars. It’s nice to see Jones finally get a film worthy of her talents, since she’s been extraordinary in films that always seem to get lost (see: Like Crazy, The Invisible Woman), and her performance is arguably the heart of the film as much as Jane’s devotion to Stephen is the age-old glue of his career and their relationship. Her heartbreaking performance makes The Theory of Everything as bracingly life affirming as it is.

Tip-top work by the cast and crew ensures that The Theory of Everything matches the calibre of the story behind it. Crisp cinematography by Benoit Delhomme lets the film radiate with life and sparkle—the spring ball sequence is a beautiful showpiece while the scene in which Stephen twirls Jane to explain his budding theory is a beautiful realization of both the harmony forged by their contrasting minds and the limits of Stephen’s physical power that will be balanced by Jane in the years to come. A subtle score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is equally stirring and inspiring. The film sits comfortably in a niche of biopics about brilliant minds confronting adversity—it plays a bit like the British step-sister of A Beautiful Mind and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—but the intimate glimpse into the Hawkings’ lives makes a wealth of complex theories remarkably accessible by stressing the humanity that underscores the big ideas. It’s a bittersweet love story at heart—a late-act turn of events is cruelly underdeveloped, almost to the point of disbelief—but the dance between Stephen and Jane is touching affair that defies the impossible.

Marsh, director of documentaries such as Project Nim and Man on Wire, plus dramas like last year’s under-seen Shadow Dancer, finds the perfect harmony between science and faith as The Theory of Everything takes the opposing forces of Stephen and Jane’s personalities and beliefs. Love, a variable that works its way into Hawking’s work just as much as God himself does, radiates through every scene of the Hawkings’ courtship and marriage. Like peas and potatoes, all good things find a balance.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The Theory of Everything is now in theatres from eOne Films.
It screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until Dec. 4.

What did you think of The Theory of Everything?