If you dumped a bucket of ice water over your head this past summer, you’re (hopefully) well aware of the ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING tells the story of the world’s most famous theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Stephen W. Hawking, from his time as an able-bodied Ph. D. student at Cambridge University in the early 1960s, his relationship with his girlfriend and later wife Jane, his personal and professional challenges over the years dealing with his ALS affliction, and up to his receiving the Companion of Honour from Queen Elizabeth II in 1989.
The film is adapted from Jane Hawking’s 2008 memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen. As the film opens, we see Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) as a wild and carefree student, coxing the university’s rowing team, leaving his school work to the last possible moment, and going to coed parties. It is at one such party where he meets Jane (Felicity Jones), who is also at Cambridge, where she is reading Spanish literature. On the surface, they seem like chalk and cheese. She’s a devout member of the “COE” (Church of England); he has “a slight problem with the celestial dictatorship premise.” But Jane falls for Stephen’s geeky confidence and the two start dating. It is not long after, when his body begins to fail him, that his doctor gives him the bad news — he has, at most, two years left to live. Jane doesn’t care and decides to marry him anyway, promising to look after him for as long as he is alive.
Little did she know at the time that Hawking would defy all expectations and live well beyond that prognosis. As the disease continues to ravage his body, Hawking goes from relying on one cane to two to being forced to use a wheelchair. Feeding himself becomes increasingly difficult until it becomes impossible. His mind, however, is just as sharp as ever and he completes his doctorate. Jane, meanwhile, has to forego her own doctorate studies to look after Stephen and their children. As Hawking tells a friend, not every part of his body is affected.
While at a conference in France in 1985, Hawking contracts pneumonia and, once again, the doctors give him no chance of survival. Jane, however, insists that her husband will recover, which he does. The price of that recovery, though, is a tracheotomy which leaves the physicist unable to speak on his own. Fortunately, American Walt Woltosz comes along and he provides Hawking with an “Equalizer”, the world’s first portable speech synthesizer — the method of communication Hawking uses even today. (Woltosz built the Equalizer for his own mother, who had also suffered from ALS.)
Years of looking after Hawking’s needs takes its toll on Jane though. At her mother’s suggestion, she joins a church choir where she strikes up a platonic relationship with the choirmaster, the recently widowed Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox). When Jane decides to finally complete her degree, Hawking agrees to hire external help. Hawking takes a shining to one caregiver, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), who seems only too pleased to turn the pages of his Penthouse magazine for him. It’s only a matter of time before the Hawkings’ marriage falls apart and the two separate in 1990. (They divorced in 1995.)
There is a fine line a director has to walk if he/she is going to make a film about a character with a physical disability. If the story is too teary, it risks being a sob fest. Not teary enough, and there isn’t an emotional connection to the characters. The latter is the problem I have with THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. At its heart, this film is a love story, albeit a very complicated one. But there is something too clinical about the story. We don’t feel either of their pain. The science-y parts are cinematically reduced to swirling coffee cups, fireworks in reverse and a blazing fire as viewed through a wool sweater. Similarly, the disability parts are limited to seeing Hawking’s body atrophy as the disease progresses. There are no scenes of Jane spoon-feeding Stephen, putting him in the bathtub or cleaning him up after he goes to the toilet. The story could have benefitted from a bit of tasteful schmaltz – but just a bit.
But this is my only beef and THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING really is a good film thanks to the competent performances from both Redmayne and Jones. Together they elevate the film from what could easily have been movie-of-the-week melodrama to something artful and entertaining. I predict that the two actors, as well as the director (James Marsh, MAN ON WIRE), will take home BAFTAs® in February. (I don’t think they’ll fare as well at the Oscars® though.)
Free up some space in your calendar and go see this film. It’s definitely worth your time. That’s my pun for the week.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 33:00.)