Published Sep 07, 2014The Theory of Everything, James Marsh's adaptation of Jane Hawking's memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, mostly evades the trappings of the traditional biopic in telling the story of the marriage between Stephen and Jane Hawking. Some information was omitted from the film to support a realistic runtime, and there's arguably a softening of some of the less admirable moments in their lives, but for the most part it follows the trajectory of their marriage — as written — and the broader strokes of Stephen's gradual move towards fame and career success.
When it starts, Stephen (Eddie Redmayne), a graduate student at Cambridge University, is working on his doctorate. Having to exert little effort to succeed in the world of academia, he splits his time between attacking highly complex theories that attempt to construct a formula for the formation of our galaxy and flirting with his affable classmate, Jane (Felicity Jones).
Marsh, a director known mostly for his documentaries, Man on Wire and Project Nim, handles the material with a restrained, classical disposition that isn't ignorant to the demands of the emotional contingent. He implies what we know is coming — close-ups of Stephen's feet and hands while dancing and writing — without doting on it or pandering. Instead, he partakes in the whimsical elements of the love story unfolding between two highly intelligent young adults while staying back far enough and leaving enough space to let the actors express their internal dialogue without having to spell it out.
This gradual building of a relationship is what makes Jane's decision to remain loyal to Stephen after he's diagnosed with motor neuron disease so convincing, touching and ultimately heartbreaking. It's also why the complications in their marriage once the story progresses — leaving Stephen in a wheelchair and Jane left to raise two (and eventually, three) children on her own — don't need to be spelled out; a simple shot of Jones attempting to hold back tears or Redmayne trying to maintain his dignity while his body deteriorates is more than enough.
It's also a testament to the performances of both actors, who both slip into their roles with near perfection. Redmayne, tasked with communicating a playful, optimistic outward appearance while hiding his inner pain, masters the physical demands of the role without neglecting the tender humanity of what portraying someone in this situation requires. Similarly, Jones, who has the unflattering responsibility of playing a woman that, while caring and strong, starts to fray around the edges as her husband gradually loses most of his functionality, effectively balances frustration and pain with compassion and empathy, giving Jane more of an identity than mere doting wife.
Smartly, amidst the award-calibre performances and basic plot progression is consistent thematic propulsion. Stephen, seeking — to state it glibly — the meaning of existence, is continually preoccupied with the notion of disproving God. Given what the universe handed him and his innate curiosity, the reason for this is implicit. Marsh, telling the human side of the story, isn't ignorant to the ephemeral nature of life and what its meaning likely boils to when faced with mortality, making the juxtaposition between seeking a scientific formula for meaning and a practical coping method for meaning foregone.
As such, Marsh reminds us that there's something devastating, albeit overwhelmingly sincere, about the dissolution of love, the many ways the corporeal body lets us down and the inherent frustration and anxiety stemming from the unforgiving fact that everything ends. The Theory of Everything is successful on almost every front, save a grating, altogether dreadful score that feels compelled to spell out the emotions that Marsh and his actors handled effectively on their own.