Stephen Hawking – as his wife saw him – illuminates “The Theory of Everything”

Felicity Jones, Stephen Hawking & Eddie Redmayne.

Felicity Jones, Stephen Hawking & Eddie Redmayne.

The Theory of Everything portrays three Hawkings: the husband, the scientist and the survivor
Film Review by Larry Murray

Stephen William Hawking was born on January 8, 1942 (300 years after the death of Galileo) in Oxford, England. His father wanted him to be a doctor, but instead he became the world’s most famous cosmologist, trying to figure out the basic laws the govern the universe. He sees creation as beginning in a big bang and ending in black holes. Along the way he has earned honors and awards for his genius and a dozen honorary degrees.

But the movie The Theory of Everything knows the average person is not particularly interested in the intracies of a unified field theory, or reconciling Einstein’s laws of the very big with the quantum world of the very small. I am fascinated by the details of Hawking’s discoveries, but in Hollywood’s world of make believe, it is not the scientific element that is going to bring folks into the local multiplex. So what we have is a nevertheless interesting film that is more about Hawking’s romance with his first wife, Jane, the family they raised, and his battle with ALS, a form of Motor Neurone Disease, which was diagnosed shortly after his 21st birthday.

The film manages to blend all three into a dramatic tale about the struggles of a gifted mind in a body that no longer obeys its commands.

The screen story focuses on his humanity and tries to paint him as just another guy fighting against adversity. We watch his deterioraton as he hobbles, then uses canes, and finally ends up being totally dependent on others as he lives out his life strapped into a wheelchair, using a computerized voice system for communication.

In the film we hear little about his theories, rather it follows the cosmologist as he lives out his family life (he has three children and three grandchildren) while continuing his research into theoretical physics. How he manages to manage the logistics of attending conferences and public lectures makes our daily woes of delayed flights and endless trips to the market seem trivial. In the film I would have liked to have seen how he manages to get through airport security checks in a metal wheelchair and its electronic appendages.

Hawking’s mind is – in many ways – that of a dreamer. His Theories of Everything have to have begun as fantastic mental visualizations that ultimately were proven in endless equations and proofs. His ability to visualize and dream fuels his continuing hope to actually make it into space one day. For real.

The film, however, does not tell this story from Hawkings viewpoint, but from his first wife Jane’s. It is based on her book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, adapted for the screen by Anthony McCarten. As such it is short on many essential elements of Hawking’s life, but it does make a wonderful story, especially for those who preferred to dissect relationships rather than frogs in biology lab at school. As Jane, Felicity Jones does a fine job as his almost-perfect, ever patient wife, and while she was certainly tested in those early days, Eddie Redmayne ends up with the far more difficult role.

Redmayne as Hawking.

Redmayne as Hawking.

Redmayne makes Hawking almost handsome, in a geeky way, relying on his glasses and shy mannerisms to portray the scientist when he is young and full of life. As his coordination begins to fail, Redmayne slowly becomes Hawking as we all know him today, first hobbling, then collapsing, finally ending up helpless in a wheelchair. By the end of the film, Redmayne’s left shoulder has just about disappeared out of the frame as his body shrinks in size, his eyes squint and his jaw goes slack, his face a pinched relic of the one that once saw smiles and frowns course across it. It is a performance that indubitably will land the actor an Academy Award nomination. The only other one of recent vintage the comes close is that of Bradley Cooper’s Elephant Man portrayal on Broadway where – rather than using prosthetics – he distorts his own body to create the illusion of deformity and withering.

The 32 year old Redmaye spent four months studying Hawking’s life, a process he said “required so much research, it was like writing a doctoral dissertation.” Since the role called for Redmayne to portray the now 72-year-old Hawking at different ages of his life and stages of his motor neurone disease, the actor watched every single documentary and YouTube video he could find on the man. He also had some difficulty fathoming the convoluted complexities of cosmology. He admitted at one point none of the words he was speaking made sense to him. So Redmayne worked with a physics teacher at Imperial College London who was able to explain things more simply.

At about two hours, The Theory of Everything does hold your interest – scientist or not – and since its opening in November has already recouped its costs. The film clearly gives everyone a bit of Hawking, the husband and father, the theoretical scientist who has revolutionized our understanding of the universe(s) and the patient who outlived – by 50 years – the original prognosis that he would only live for two years with ALS. It is a human interest story like no other, done exceptionally well in this film, and perhaps it will even inspire you to buy one of his books to better understand what drove this genius to overcome all odds to help humanity understand it ultimate origins.

Now playing (December 2014) in the North Adam Multiplex, Hudson Multiplex, Spectrum 8 in Albany.

Check out our other holiday film reviews:

The Babadook
The Interview
Into the Woods
The Imitation Game

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