I first read Stephen W. Hawking’s A Brief History of Time when I was in the fifth grade. During a sleepover at a friend’s house, I discovered my classmate was obsessed with it and quoted it daily. It was also the first time I became aware that I had friends with intellectual capacities far greater than my own. So, for Christmas, I asked my dad to buy me the Hawking book, simply because I wanted be able to hold a conversation with my far nerdier buddy.
I took to A Brief History of Time immediately, even at a very young age. Hawking had written a book in laymen’s terms and made accessible his headier, more impenetrable ideas, like worm holes. Most of all, I remember thinking that Hawking seemed to have the answers to whether time travel was possible and how one could pull it off. Clearly, the man with Lou Gehrig’s Disease on the book cover was a genius.
Consider The Theory of Everything the film biography of Hawking’s life. It’s conventional in narrative, and you can feel the plot points and story turns coming like clockwork. We meet Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) in college, when he’s described as “strange” and comes across as an outsider who’s awkward, smiles easily and seems very sweet. It’s love at first sight when he encounters Jane (Felicity Jones), who shares his passion for unorthodox ideas, if not his intellectual reach.
The film provides visual cues and verbal hints where it’s going all along: we know things are about to go bad for Stephen, as his romantic courtship with Jane is so intoxicating, we’re being set up for something bad that must follow. While its handled with subtlety and tastefully, we observe moments where Hawking is clearly detecting his affliction taking over his body. While the dialogue is always sharp, I wanted a presentation that was more unorthodox and dug deeper into its central figure. Hawking’s astonishing survival and mental escape from his body should be celebrated and portrayed in a loving cinematic ode, but this one is merely pretty good, instead of the masterpiece it could have been.
First and foremost, this is worth seeing for Redmayne’s transformative and truly amazing performance. He looks like every picture I’ve seen of Hawking and always hones in on the touching, frustrating and vast intelligence and idiosyncrasies of the man. Jones was heart-breaking in Like Crazy and is just as good here. The best moments are silent, as the camera gets real close and shows us how, almost immediately, Stephen and Jane shared an endearing, almost wordless understanding of one another. I loved the scene of them seemingly sharing a telepathic conversation, during their first dinner at his parent’s house. There’s also a terrific moment where we see Jane try to introduce a new form of communication after an operation leaves Stephen without speech: the tender, defeated looks they share is devastating.
The film is more clearly about Jane and what she sacrificed. This makes sense, since it’s based on her book. The introduction of a new friend and romantic threat initially seems handled with tact, until we get the inevitable scenes of the forbidden lovers declaring their secret attraction. It may be a reflection on what really took place, but it feels overly familiar.
We never get a richer, more layered sense of Hawking and what he’s going through, aside from the painful physical transformation. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a far stronger, visually and in its ability to make audiences understand what it’s like to be trapped in your own body.
Two scenes stand out for crashing and burning. One has the sounds of a piano cueing a romantic smooch, which is fine for a Nicholas Sparks movie, but not this one. Then there’s a fantasy sequence where Hawking imagines himself walking; this well-intentioned but botched scene brings to mind the ill-advised TV ad that Christopher Reeve once made, in which CGI showed him walking out of his chair.
Jane’s faith in God contrasts intriguingly with Hawking’s atheism, a subject that recurs throughout their courtship and into their marriage. It works as a running theme. So does the end credits, which visualize Hawking’s grand illustrations on the cosmos.
This is too TV movie-ready for the man whose extraordinary life its portraying. Still, Johann Johannsson’s beautiful score and Redmayne’s astonishing performance make it worthwhile.