Relationally, you can’t entirely trust what you’re seeing in The Theory of Everything, the romanticized portrait of astrophysicist superstar Stephen Hawking and his many years spent with his first wife, Jane Hawking. Yet biopics are funny this way: Even satisfying ones can fudge and elide and gloss over any number of difficulties, while in this instance offering a steadily absorbing and movingly acted depiction of a marriage whose time comes, and then goes.
Eddie Redmayne, last seen trembling with grief, nobly, in Les Miserables, plays Hawking before and in the thick of his motor neuron disease. Felicity Jones portrays the woman initially known as Jane Wilde, whose recent memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen was the basis of screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s adaptation. This was the heavily revised second memoir she wrote on the subject. More on that in a bit.
When we meet Redmayne’s Hawking in the 1963 Cambridge University scenes, he’s a gangly, grinning bundle of intellectual discovery, ogling the world (and women) through enormous black horn-rimmed glasses, pursuing his own theory of the origin of the universe. Director James Marsh, whose superb work in documentaries includes Man on Wire and Project Nim, brings Stephen and Jane together as a golden couple. The film is a story of a marriage that survives, for a long time, in the face of crushing disease, and within the framework of a caretaker scenario that led to Jane’s depression in the midst of Stephen’s increasing global fame.
The trailers for The Theory of Everything hint at the real-life couple’s romantic travails. Their three kids always nearby, Jane ended up with their friend, choirmaster Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox). Stephen left Jane for his nurse, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake). The movie’s pretty light on matters of science. It works best as a study of human vulnerability and love’s way with us all, and as such, a handsomely mounted, slightly hollow picture by the end becomes a very affecting one.
Now: Setting facts aside, how “authentic” are the relationships imagined here? A much bleaker image of the Hawkings’ lives together emerged from the pages of the 1999 memoir Jane published under the title Music to Move the Stars. She acknowledged that she wrote it in the wake of “a horrendously painful divorce.” The one we see in The Theory of Everything does not answer to that description. Jane’s initial memoir’s description of Stephen as a “puppeteer” and an imperious, narcissistic “emperor” led to fearsome blowback. Jane later said she learned “that you can’t write exactly as you think.”
The Theory of Everything takes out a lot of the mess. Marsh nonetheless manages a film worth seeing. Redmayne has often seemed like not quite enough onscreen; in the trifle My Week With Marilyn, opposite Michelle Williams, his freckled ice-cream face (to twist an Odets line from Sweet Smell of Success) was photogenic, but the performance never sparked. Now, though, as Hawking, he has the most interesting role of his young career, and he proves he’s fully up to it, both in his rigorous physical depiction of the progressive disease’s results and in capturing Hawking’s wit.
In a more recessive role, Jones is no less impressive. She hints at Jane’s internal struggles even when the film itself chooses a more decorous route. The best scene in The Theory of Everything is the breakup itself. The way Marsh lingers for a telling few seconds on Stephen, as he weighs the decision to send a very important message to his wife, which will be translated into the famous Hawking voice, the film’s polite drawbacks fade. We’re left with two actors, two valiant, flawed characters and a moment that makes the movie.
The Theory of Everything (PG-13): ★★★✩✩