If the universe is infinitely finite, an entity whose mystery is knowable only through an evolving progression of theories and equations, it’s nothing compared to a marriage. Every marriage or long-term partnership is knowable only to the people inside it — and sometimes not even then. The Theory of Everything tells the story of genius theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s marriage to the former Jane Wilde, though of course it can tell that story only from the outside. But the film is striking, at times even piercing, for the way it infiltrates some universal realities of marriage. If the secrets of making marriage work were a science, then geniuses might be able to help us through it. As it is, even brainiacs like Stephen Hawking have to muddle through like the rest of us.
Hawking was diagnosed with a serious motor neuron disease in his early twenties, a condition that began attacking his motor capabilities and fairly quickly put him in a wheelchair. But The Theory of Everything — which is based on Jane Hawking’s memoir and directed by James Marsh, who gave us the Philippe Petit documentary Man on Wire — begins in 1963, before any of that happens. Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) is still a cosmology student at Cambridge, a shy, shambling, soft-spoken nerd-babe, sexy in an E=mc2 way. His walk is a kind of bent-forward slouch, but you wouldn’t attribute that to any lurking physical ailment. He seems, simply, to be always racing forward in his thoughts. It’s only natural his body should try to follow.
You can see why fellow student Jane (Felicity Jones), well-bred, well-mannered, and pot-of-cream pretty, would be attracted to him. The two meet at a party, and at first Hawking can’t muster the momentum to get a relationship going. He’s wasting valuable time, though he doesn’t yet know just how valuable. Not long after the two finally get together, Stephen stumbles and lands unconscious on the pavement at school. A doctor figures out what the problem is, informing Stephen he has only about two years to live. Jane decides that she wants to make a life with him anyway; the two marry and begin having babies. We see Stephen holding his first child, a daughter, as an infant. Holding babies two and three will become more difficult as his motor capabilities deteriorate, but he manages anyway — at every stage, Stephen, as Redmayne plays him, radiates the joy of being in such close proximity to a tiny new being.
Through all of it, of course, Stephen is spinning out one brilliant theory after another; the coconut on his hunched shoulders is formidable. His fame grows, but the strain of looking after him — while also raising three children — begins to wear on Jane. She says she needs outside help; Stephen resists it. A third party, a music teacher named Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), enters their circumscribed world, complicating it. Then a hired nurse, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), complicates it more. A marriage can hold only two people, but putting up barricades against the outside world is impossible.
The Theory of Everything may slightly sanitize the truth of Jane and Stephen, whatever that is: This is, after all, a story told from the point of view of an ex-wife. (Hawking, now 72 — having surpassed his original death sentence by some 50 years — is said to have deemed the movie’s depiction “broadly true.”) And the film is as polished as a piece of fine walnut furniture — in spirit and approach, it very closely resembles The King’s Speech. Some will see that as a bad thing, but neatly constructed, heartfelt triumph-over-adversity pictures have their place. This one is particularly sly in the way it folds complex and sometimes painful ideas about love and commitment into a somewhat glossy package. Though it’s never dour, it doesn’t bleed heavily into feel-good territory, either.
What makes the picture so believable is its unspoken insistence that friendship, not romance, is the backbone of marriage. As their union begins to crumble — in fact, after it has fallen apart — Jane shows her bruised disappointment when Stephen no longer comes to her first with some bit of happy news. But the next minute, she laughs easily at one of his wry jokes, unable to shut herself off from the core of whatever she loved about him in the first place.
Marsh could be criticized for going too light on the science: You won’t learn much about Hawking’s professional achievements here. But the movie suggests that not even Hawking, who considers himself an atheist, is immune to wonder. In a lovely scene, young Stephen and Jane attend a university dance, and he explains why the men’s laundered-and-pressed white shirts glow more brightly than the girls’ white dresses under the UV light. “Tide washing powder,” he says, and his explication delights her. But in the movie’s terms, the “why” doesn’t make the “what” any less magical: Marsh and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme show us a sea of dancers, nearly invisible in the glittering dark but for their radioactive-looking shirtfronts and elbow-length gloves, happy young people doing double duty as night-lights.
Both Jones and Redmayne are marvelous as two strong, perceptive people locked in a frustrating pas de deux. Jones is almost childlike in her early scenes; you can’t believe her Jane, small as a wintertime bird, will have the strength to help Stephen into and out of his wheelchair. But by the end of the film — and by the inevitable end of the marriage — Jones, ever alert and intent, makes you believe Jane is capable of anything, almost to her detriment. She takes on so much that she nearly wears herself out — Jones makes you see the strain, thread by fraying thread.
Redmayne’s job is even trickier, but he pulls it off beautifully. We all know what Hawking looks like: When we think of him, we see a man scrunched in a wheelchair, often sporting a wicked, skewed smile, and equally skewed glasses. The wheelchair is, of course, a significant feature. So how does an actor play the person and not the infirmity? Redmayne succeeds, without succumbing to mere impersonation. In an early scene, right after Stephen has received his diagnosis, we see him surveying his hands — his fingers forming a gnarled claw — as if they were no longer his own. Later, Stephen can barely move those hands at all. But Redmayne makes it clear that Hawking’s mind is always alive with movement. We’re so intent on watching him that the wheelchair recedes to the point where it practically disappears. All we see is a man, one with a crooked Cheshire Cat grin, proving that physicality is all in the mind.