The Theory of Everything’ makes Stephen Hawking into a generic sufferer

Redmayne (right) as Hawking in his more ambulatory days.
Mike D'Angelo

Two stars

The Theory of Everything Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis. Directed by James Marsh. Rated PG-13. Now playing.

Hollywood loves geniuses, and Hollywood loves characters who overcome disabilities, so it was inevitable that we’d eventually see a biopic about theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who hasn’t let motor neuron disease stop him from seeking answers to fundamental questions about the origin of the universe. Unfortunately, it was also inevitable that any such film would focus less on Hawking’s fearsomely complex work (for that, see Errol Morris’ terrific 1992 documentary A Brief History of Time) than on his personal life, watching sorrowfully as he loses his ability to walk, speak and otherwise function without constant care.

The Theory of Everything succeeds in trivializing the man even further by concentrating primarily on his unexceptional relationship with his first wife, Jane Wilde Hawking, whose memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen inspired the screenplay. Hawking’s career has been one long journey into the unknown; this bland movie, by contrast, goes where a thousand inspirational biopics have gone before.

First seen as a gawky, perpetually grinning university student whose spectacles look perpetually askew, Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) meets Jane (Felicity Jones) at a party, where they lock eyes across a crowded room in time-honored cinematic fashion. Even in these early scenes, director James Marsh (Man on Wire) foreshadows Stephen’s physical deterioration, showing him clumsily knocking a teacup to the floor and writing equations on a chalkboard in an extremely shaky hand.

When finally diagnosed, he’s given only two years to live, but Jane marries him anyway, determined to enjoy whatever time they’re given. And she goes on loving him even as she eventually falls in love with her choir director, Jonathan (Charlie Cox), who becomes her second husband, and Stephen gets romantically involved with his nurse, Elaine (Maxine Peake), who becomes his second wife. Aspects of Stephen’s pioneering theoretical research concerning black holes just get occasional lip service, as Jane and others explain the basic concepts to curious laymen.

Redmayne, who made a minor splash as Marius in the recent film adaptation of Les Misérables, does an uncanny job of mimicking Stephen’s familiar gnarled posture and impish countenance, conveying a vivid sense of a lively mind trapped inside an unresponsive body. Ultimately, though, The Theory of Everything is less about Stephen than it is about Jane, who’s somehow portrayed by Jones (The Invisible Woman) as both generically indomitable and generically long-suffering.

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten struggles to portray her relationship with Stephen as true and beautiful while simultaneously acknowledging that it ended nearly 20 years ago; the odd result is a movie that keeps telling us these two people passionately love each other even as it depicts them slowly growing apart and gravitating toward new lovers. It makes an extraordinary man seem downright banal—just another casualty of the West’s 50 percent divorce rate.

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