Acting Makes ‘Theory of Everything’ A Must-See


The Theory of Everything is a brilliantly acted, really well-written movie about the relationship between one of the geniuses of the century and the woman he loved — well, most of the time — as his body disintegrated. Stephen Hawking, the brilliant cosmologist, has had a fascinating life, and this movie, based on a memoir by his ex-wife, presents a lesson in how great actors can communicate. The performances take the movie from the category of “feel-good overcoming a disability” to “examination of a relationship tested beyond any reasonable amount and its effect on two people.”

That is not to say that this film is totally biographical. It is a memoir, after all, and author Jane Wilde had written a first published version that was rather nasty. Years later, after she and Hawking made peace, we see a new version. Which one is accurate only they could attest, but the current film provides a wealth of dramatic goodies. Happily, it does not focus on Hawking’s work but on the dark hole of their relationship.

Young Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) meet when both are at Cambridge University in the 1960s. They even look a bit alike, and both are adorable. Hawking is awkward but has no other real symptoms, has no notion of what his future holds. It creates a bittersweet feeling in the audience. We know that all of that will disappear. After Stephen has a fall, they discover that he has ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s syndrome. For anyone, that is a horrible blow. For a genius such as Hawking, it might be worse: His brain, his whole personality will still be there, but he will increasingly be unable to communicate. His prognosis is not good. Doctors predict he will be dead in two years.

Jane marries him anyway. Partially, it feels that she accepts that it will be a short-term relationship, but her feelings for Stephen win out. She provides enormous support; she is ready to assist him in every possible way, even as his body deteriorates. The doctors were wrong: Hawking is alive 50 years later. And that essentially altered the relationship. Taking care of someone you love over the short term makes one a hero; doing it for decades makes one a martyr.

Jane developed other relationships with male friends of the couple. There are also religious issues: Hawking is an ardent atheist; Wilde a devout Catholic. There are other stressors. A nurse (Maxine Peake) brought in to take care of Hawking’s physical needs seems to be, well, really taking care of his needs. There is more than a bit of jealousy, and hints in the movie, again based on Wilde’s beliefs, that there might be some abuse involved. Hawking did later marry the nurse. But at any rate, whether partially false or not, it is wonderfully dramatic.
Redmayne gives a performance that is widely being discussed as putting him into the lead for an Academy Award. It is beyond excellent. As his character loses his ability to speak, as his facial muscles are unable to demonstrate feelings, he is able to use his eyes alone to express complex feelings beautifully. It is a bravura performance; one of the best I have ever seen. Jones does not quite match him; hers is a particularly complex person who changes a lot over time, but she is able to use her voice. Yet she can match Redmayne in power.

These are the kind of performances that become historic; young actors will be studying them for decades.
Hawking has become somewhat controversial in his old age, supporting a boycott of Israel although the technology he depends on for movement and communication was developed there, but there is none of that in the film. There is only a limited discussion of his theories. But the focus on the relationship of two young people who are forced to change so much because of illness works extremely well. The process of their becoming who they eventually are is fascinating, and the performances turn the whole film into high art.

This is one of the best films of the year. No superheroes or special effects. A brilliant script by Anthony McCarten, superb direction by James Marsh and two of the best performances I have seen in years turn this into a must-see movie.