Monday, November 24, 2014

The Theory of Everything

Review by Pamela Zoslov

At the Toronto International Film Festival screening of THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, about the relationship between the famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane, Hawking's nurse could be seen wiping a tear from Hawking's cheek. That is an eloquent endorsement of this rich and moving film, directed by James Marsh from an excellent screenplay by Anthony McCarten. It is a very traditional film, very well made, and quite worthy of its subject.

Other actors have portrayed Hawking, including Benedict Cumberbatch in a well-regarded BBC film, but Eddie Redmayne captures something of Hawking's mischievous character; even when largely paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair and unable to communicate except through his now-famous voice simulator, Redmayne's Hawking has a glint in his eye and a child's sense of play. Redmayne brilliantly captures the ambitious young genius in his school days, and also realistically inhabits Hawking's physical deterioration — no small feat — after the scientist's diagnosis, at age 21, of motor neurone disease during his last year at Oxford. At the time, Hawking was given two years to live. He is now 72, his survival due in no small part to Jane's support..

This is a love story, based on a memoir written by Jane, who married Hawking shortly after his grim diagnosis. Felicity Jones is revelatory as the fearless, determined Jane, whose devotion helped Hawking overcome the black depression resulting from his illness and succeed in his groundbreaking research. The triumphs and tragedies of their story can be read in Jones' lovely, gently expressive face.

The film doesn't romanticize either spouse's character. Jane, overwhelmed by years of attending to Stephen's extraordinary needs, eventually strayed toward another man, albeit with Stephen's blessing. The marriage ended after 25 years when Stephen fell in love with his nurse, Elaine Mason, who became his second wife. The book on which the film is based, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, is a revised version of an earlier, much more bitter memoir. (The couple are now good friends after some years of estrangement.) Screenwriter McCarten spent three years persuading Jane to allow the film adaptation of her book.

The film opens in 1963, with Hawking and his classmates as exuberant undergraduates, riding bicycles and rowing crew at Oxford. Hawking spots young Jane at a dance. Her friend pronounces Stephen “strange” because “He goes to Ban the Bomb meetings!” Jane, who is studying medieval Iberian poetry, is intrigued by this gawky but supremely self-confident young fellow. He doesn't dance like other young men, but his brilliance wins her over. Stephen describes to her his interest in cosmology, which he calls “religion for intelligent atheists.” He is searching for “the theory of everything – one single unified equation that explains everything in the universe.” His atheism is contrasted with Jane's devout Church of England faith, a conflict that is revisited several times during their marriage.

Stephen begins to show symptoms of his illness, losing coordination, stumbling and tumbling down stairs, landing himself in the hospital. After his diagnosis (“I'm ever so sorry,” says the doctor in that very English way), Stephen gives up on life, holing up in his dormitory and refusing to see anyone, including Jane. Having fallen in love with him, Jane persists, and eventually draws him out. Their engagement – against the advice of their parents – gives him a reason to go on.

All is not roses, of course, given Stephen's increasing physical limitations, but the couple nonetheless create a stable and fulfilling home life, becoming the parents of three children. Stephen seldom talks about his condition, stating, “Everything is fine. We're just a normal family.” The 1970s find Hawking studying the dynamics of black holes and discovering Hawking radiation, which allows a black hole to leak energy and gradually fade to nothing. His next project is to show that “the universe has no boundaries at all” in space and time, which became the basis of his worldwide bestselling book, A Brief History of Time.

During a conference in Geneva, Stephen falls into a coma, and Jane flies to his side, rejecting doctors' advice to let him die. “There's no question,” she says emphatically, “Stephen must live.” Her love and respect for her husband are undiminished by her new relationship with her church choir director, Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), who had become a close friend of the couple. Stephen is given a tracheotomy, and can communicate only through the then-new technology of computer voice simulator. (Some people may not realize Hawking is British because, as Jane observes on hearing the voice simulator, “It's American!”)

Stephen then requires round-the-clock care, which opens the door to Elaine (Maxine Peake), the rangy redheaded nurse who has designs on Hawking. He becomes a silly schoolboy in her flirtatious presence, leaving Jane feeling excluded. (Later events beyond the scope of this film were quite unpleasant, as the second Mrs. Hawking was accused of abusing Hawking physically and emotionally. They are now divorced.)

James Marsh has proved equally adept at documentaries (MAN ON WIRE and PROJECT NIM) and feature films, and he handles this real-life story with relish. Production values are impeccable, in particular the lovely score by Johann Johannsson. 4 out of 4 stars.

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