As one of about 10 million people who bought Stephen Hawking’s book “A Brief History of Time” – and one of 9.9 million who couldn’t thoroughly understand it – I have long been fascinated with the British physicist. That he broke so much intellectual ground in the late 20th century is wonderful enough, but he has coped with a motor neuron disease that confined him to a wheelchair almost 50 years ago and robbed him of speech 20 years later.
We see these things in “The Theory of Everything,” a deeply moving, brilliantly acted and relentlessly respectful film biography of the scientist, who’ll turn 73 in January. Anthony McCarten based his screenplay on “Traveling With Infinity – My Life With Stephen,” by Hawking’s first wife, Jane Wilde. She wrote it in 2008, so she may have forgotten that she once reportedly said her function was “simply to tell him that he’s not God.” (Scientifically speaking, he got close.)
The title refers to Hawking’s dream of finding one idea that will explain how the universe came to be and, by extension, what’s likely to happen to it. He was among the first people to define a cosmology that reconciled the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics – this is explained in the film in a way laymen can comprehend – and spent more than four decades pursuing this perhaps unattainable goal.
We first see him pondering it at Cambridge, where he dazzled fellow doctoral candidates in the mid-1960s. The movie begins in traditional goopy-genius style: Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) writes test answers on the back of old railway timetables, spills champagne on himself at a dance, shows up late for everything and invites a girl out for a Sunday morning date soon after she informs him that she worships in the Church of England.
But this behavior is the prerogative of brilliant eccentrics, and the girl doesn’t mind. Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) tolerates not only his unusual family (Dad makes wine from flowers, Sis reads “Lord of the Flies” at the dinner table) but his then-unusual ideas about God. He defines cosmology as a universe-explaining system for intelligent atheists, one of many ideas he modified later in life.
McCarten and director James Marsh then carry us through their marriage, child-rearing and his attraction to a caretaker (Maxine Peake) and hers to a choir director (Charlie Cox). Everything has a stiff-upper-lip nobility, from passion to despair to renunciation. We’re never allowed to see Hawking angry or arrogant or ironic, qualities that made Daniel Day-Lewis’ Christy Brown so unique in “My Left Foot.”
We do fully see the effort needed to sustain jobs and marriage when one partner is virtually helpless. Hawking’s brain never breaks down; we understand the effort he makes to give birth to his thoughts, and the toll Jane pays to make it possible for him to do so. (Her own doctorate was put on hold for years, and of course she did most of the work raising three children.)
Jones plays her with quiet determination and suppressed strong feelings. Her fine performance never gets eclipsed by Redmayne’s, though he’s given the inevitably showier role. He contorts himself physically with remarkable skill. Though he’s hampered by distorted speech and limited movement, he also conveys what’s going on inside Hawking. Most of the time, the character has a mischievous twinkle in his eye, as if he’d discovered some secret of the universe that left him permanently amused.