A marriage and a revolutionary theory of time begin together in a discussion between Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) and Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) about the phosphorescents in a brand of laundry detergent in the real life love story The Theory of Everything.
Serious spoiler warning: If you’re even broadly familiar with the life and work of Stephen Hawking and the story of his marriage to Jane Wilde, nothing below will count as a spoiler. If you don’t know any of that, I’m jealous, because then the movie’s going to be filled with wonderful surprises for you, but you’d better not read my review until after you’ve seen the film.
The Theory of Everything is one of the most beautiful real-life love stories I’ve ever seen brought to screen, spoiled in the end by only one thing.
The lovers, Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde (played in the movie by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones), do not live happily ever after nor do they die in a tragic, romantic, and cathartic way that lifts the spirit and enlarges the soul even while breaking the heart, because they didn’t.
They are both still alive and although the story of their love reached its final chapter it didn’t so much end as wind down. It’s hard to provide a satisfying conclusion and stay true to a story that finished without concluding anything.
That’s real life, but it’s a problem for honest filmmakers like The Theory of Everything’s director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten.
Marsh and McCarten might have save themselves the problem by making The Theory of Everything less of a love story and more the story of a marriage, which it also is anyway, or by emphasizing the other story they tell along with the love story, the story of a good woman who fails at being a saint.
But they prefer to tell us the love story and for two-thirds of the movie it’s exquisite: touching, heart-rending, heart-swelling, often funny---true love is a comedy, while it lasts---often painful, often funny and painful as in laughing through the pain, finally tragic---for Jane---but, like I said, beautiful, especially at the beginning, which is true of all love stories.
1963. Cambridge, England. Stephen Hawking, a doctoral student at the university and Jane Wilde, who is studying Medieval and Early Renaissance poetry at a college in London, meet at a party where they fall in love in an exchange of two words.
“Science,” he says. “Arts,” she replies. Both sound a bit apologetic. Neither needs to be.
Jane and Stephen don’t seem made for each other. They don’t exactly complement each other. Their differences are stark and would seem to present a problem. Take their views on God. She’s a believing Christian, a regularly church-going communicant of the Church of England. He claims as his faith cosmology which he defines as “a religion for intelligent atheists.” When he asks her out on a first date, she turns him down because he suggests they meet on a Sunday morning. She’s baffled and a little annoyed that it hadn’t occurred to him she’d attending church. He’s baffled and somewhat amused that she’d waste a perfectly good Sunday that way. But they’re both music-lovers. They can quote the same poets---
No learning from the starry men,
Who follow with the optic glass
The whirling ways of stars that pass -
They’re both curious and open to ideas and experiences beyond their ken. They find joy in small pleasures. They don’t want anything. And most important: They understand each other.
Not in the sense that she can follow his math or that he’s fascinated by the linguistic nuances of Fourteenth Century romantic poetry but she understands why doing the math makes him happy and he understands the same about her work translating that poetry.
Typical college students of the time might have said they dig each other.
Jane and Stephen aren’t typical.
My favorite scene in the whole movie is at the party when Jane and Stephen have found a little bit of privacy on the stairs to an upper floor in the house. They’re just sitting there talking, oblivious to people who have to step around them on their ways up and down. They’ve clearly been there for hours. We don’t hear much of what they say, but it doesn’t matter. We know what the conversation is about: learning that they were each right to be smitten with the other. It’s one of those lucky moments that should last forever, that in a way does last forever. And it’s wrenching when one of Jane’s friends comes to drag her away and breaks the moment. It’s thrilling, then, when Jane comes dashing back to press a piece of paper with her hastily scribbled phone number into Stephen’s hand: Cinderella returning to the ball to make sure the prince finds the glass slipper.
Jane’s no pushover, though. She knows Stephen’s fallen just as hard for her as she has for him, but she still expects him to prove it. He has to court her. And he does. To her astonishment, undaunted by her initial rebuff, he shows up outside her church on Sunday---she’s impressed because it means he bothered to find out what church she attends---and invites her to dinner with his family of prickly and proud eccentrics. They’re a formidable bunch, close-knit, protective of each other, intellectually snobbish, and united in their awe of Stephen, who’s the prince of the house. Jane has to earn her welcome. His sisters and mother make it plain they don’t think she’s worthy of Stephen, mainly on the grounds that nobody is, and his father puts her to the test. But Stephen is the prince and one of his rights as a prince is the right to choose his own princess. He makes it clear he’s chosen Jane.
“I’m taking Jane to the May Ball,” he announces, without having asked Jane herself yet. He takes care of that formality right there, with a mischievous look across the table and a wag of his eyebrows (that’s going to become a signature of Redmayne’s performance) and she accepts with a teasing grin and an admonishing shake of her head that lets him know he’s being let off the hook but he’d better do it right in the future.
And at the ball, an outdoor affair with fireworks, Jane gives science her first of many gifts. Stephen, a brilliant but an up till now unambitious to the point of lazy student, has been idly casting about for a topic for his dissertation and through a seemingly trivial discussion of laundry detergent he’s inspired. It’s not a simple jump. It takes a couple more scenes to work it out but he figures out what he’s going to do.
He’s going to explain Time.
And Jane’s part in this is to understand that it can be done and he’s the one who can do it.
Sadly, there’s no going to be a reciprocal gift for her from him.
There won’t be…time.
Circumstances won’t allow for it.
He receives the fateful and as far as any one involved knows fatal diagnosis.
Motor neuron disease.
He has two years to live.
Naturally, Stephen’s devastated. And his reaction is to hide himself away in his rooms where he apparently intends to stay and wait to die. But Jane is made of sterner star stuff.
“We’re going to beat this together,” she declares.
By this she doesn’t mean death. She doesn’t mean the death. Jane isn’t fooling herself. She knows the facts and she’s strong enough and intelligent enough to face them. By this she means despair. She won’t leave him alone to wither away as he thinks he wants her to. She determines to keep him alive in the sense of making the most of the time he has left. She keeps him moving, keeps him hoping, keeps him working. She saves him from himself and saves him for herself. And she saves him for science.
But the reason she is able to save him for science is he does not die on schedule.
Which turns out to be for Jane what believers in God like her call a mixed blessing.
She gets to spend many unexpected years with the husband she adores. She gets children, three of them, all happy and healthy. And she gets twenty-five years of unappreciated self-sacrifice, self-abnegation, loneliness, and physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion. And the only pure pleasure she’s offered that doesn’t require complete self-denial comes in what for her is the cruelest form of temptation.
Redmayne is receiving a great deal of acclaim for his portrayal of Stephen, and he deserves all of it. He’s worked one of those Daniel Day Lewis-Meryl Streep-like tricks of magic in which they appear to replace themselves completely on screen with their character and become, as Lewis did with Lincoln and Streep with Julia Child, more like the people they’re playing than those people are themselves. In Theory of Everything, Redmayne comes across as more like Stephen Hawking than Stephen Hawking is like Stephen Hawking.
And it’s a physically exacting performance, complicated by the movie’s not having been shot in sequence. Redmayne had to contort himself into a wheelchair for one scene, be on his feet and limber for the next, any of many various stages, postures, and ranges of movement in between for the scene after that, and then go back to where he’d left off in the morning or the day before or the week before. Then, of course, in many scenes he couldn’t talk, couldn’t gesture, couldn’t suggest any emotion or thought through the slightest shirk, shrug, or tilt of the head. He had to express it all through the little controlled movements Hawking was left with: the lifting of one corner of his mouth, the wagging of his eyebrows, the shifting of his gaze. And it’s amazing to watch him at this stage doing more than showing us the person trapped in the broken body but showing us that person using what he has to be the person he always was. All of Stephen’s wit, intelligence, feeling, mischief, and charm come through as vibrantly and vitally as they do in the scenes in which Redmayne could put his voice and whole body to work.
And in the first part of the movie, when he can move, he moves beautifully. As impressive as he is portraying Stephen in the final stages of his physical decline, he’s just as adept at revealing its very beginnings. one of the surprises of the movie is that Hawking was actually rather physically active before the onset of his disease. He liked to ride his bike and take long walks. He was a coxswain for the rowing team, although his passion was, of all things, croquet. It’s subtle and it takes a while for it to register that the charming clumsiness that causes him to spill a cup of coffee on an exam paper isn’t the sign of an absent-minded professor type who spends too much time in his head and not enough time in the gym. In fact, one of the surprises of the movie is that Hawking was actually rather physically active before the onset of his disease. He liked to ride his bike and take long walks. He was a coxswain for the rowing team, although his passion was, of all things, croquet.
But for all that, I think the moments I liked best were when we watch Stephen working at a blackboard or just sitting quietly as he’s carried away by an idea. The look that comes over his face isn’t a look of genius. It’s a look of pure joy.
The Theory of Everything doesn’t go very far into Hawking’s scientific work. Mostly, Stephen’s genius is seen in its effect on others. Marsh puts him in the company of other geniuses and lets them convince us what Stephen’s come up with is impressive by acting extremely impressed. (He does something similar to convince us that despite Stephen’s eccentricities he was a popular and good-hearted young man by surrounding him with a gang of good-hearted young men.) But the clincher is the look on Redmayne’s face when he is caught up in an idea
Jones’ work is, necessarily less showy, but it’s equally as brilliant although she has an almost opposite challenge. His performance is an act of self-transformation; hers is one of self-effacement. Jones’ job on screen is not unlike Jane’s with Stephen’s: it’s up to her to clear space around Redmayne so he can do his more attention-grabbing work. And, also like Jane, she is mostly on her own. Redmayne has the actors playing the impressed scientists to work off of. He has the actors playing those good young men. He has Jones. But Jones is very often alone in a crowd. When Jane isn’t being ignored she’s withdrawing or even running away from others. Redmayne can’t help calling attention to his performance with his every movement. Jones, however, has to grab and hold our attention at the same time Jane is failing to grab or hold the attention other characters or when she’s pushing it away. She has to be seen while trying not to be seen trying not to be seen. And then she has the additional, tricky challenge of playing someone who is almost wholly good while not making her too good to be true and at the same time not overplaying her flaws and foibles to the point we lose sight of her goodness. To put it starkly: how do you play someone who is practically a saint and make her saintly and interesting?
It’s often said that God doesn’t ask us to shoulder any burdens we’re not strong enough to carry, but that’s obviously not true. He routinely drops burdens on His children that crush them on the spot or wear them down and exhaust all their strength and will over time.
Jane is a brave, determined, large- and loyal-hearted young woman forced by circumstances or as she sees it asked by God to accept the life of a saint---a saint being defined as someone who lives her life entirely for others, which for Jane means for her husband and children---and for a time she succeeds and even appears to triumph. She is saint-like for as long as she can hold up, which doesn’t mean she’s without ego, doubt, or ill-feelings or immune to temptation, but eventually she stumbles and falls and can’t get up. God, the version of God she believes in, the loving, caring, care-taking God who involves himself in our daily lives---the one her cheerfully non-believing husband calls a celestial dictator---has asked too much of her. She’s not a saint. She’s just a good person who can’t take any more or give any more because God has worn her out with his demands. This is tragic because that God doesn’t exist, even in the movie.
I suppose another, kinder way of looking at it, a way more sympathetic to Jane, is that God finally decided she’d finished the job, as if He’d said, “That’s it, your done. You gave the world Stephen Hawking. That’s quite an accomplishment. The task is over, go in peace to live your own life and seek a happy ending for yourself.”
But like I said, Marsh and McCarten are honest filmmakers.
And I suppose you could, as I did, try to find a happy ending by seeing what happens as a kind of transcendence on Stephen’s part. It isn’t, as I can’t help suspecting it was in real life, a selfish decision on his part to give himself what Jane had had to deny herself all those years when she lived entirely to take care of him, the freedom to live entirely for himself and his work. He isn’t rejecting Jane or abandoning her and the children. He’s just reached a point in the intellectual (and even spiritual) journey he’d begun before he and Jane met and fell in love where she can no longer travel with him. In a not entirely metaphorical sense, he leaves the ordinary world and becomes one with his beloved science. He’s where the universe needs him to be in order to get itself explained and she got him there. It’s a triumph for both of them, even though it means they have to part.
You could see it that way.
And Marsh and McCarten are a little less scrupulous on this score.
In the end, though, they give us a scrupulously honest story about how marriage works…and doesn’t.
We don’t fall in love with the person we met at the party and spent the night talking to on the stairs. We fall in love with the party and with the stairs and with everybody who had to step around us on their way up and down. Love contains the circumstances under which it came into being and for it to continue the circumstances have to continue in some form. That party, that moment on the stairs has to last and be part of all the new and changing circumstances that follow. Circumstances can change to such a degree that the initiating moment is lost. We’re cut off from the source of our love.
And we ourselves or, rather, the selves we were at that initiating moment are part of the circumstances and in falling love with the moment we fall in love with those selves too. Love can end not only when one partner no longer recognizes the other as the person they fell in love but when they no longer recognize themselves as the person who fell in love.
In loving you, I love me. In loving me, you love yourself. Sadly, heart-breakingly, for Jane circumstances became such that when she’s with Stephen there is no “me.” This means that there comes a time when both Jane and Stephen realize a person they both need to love for the marriage to continue is no longer there for either of them.
Charlie Cox is effective and affecting as Jonathan Hellyer Jones, the choirmaster at Jane’s church, a good and well-intentioned man who becomes both Jane’s salvation and, to his conscience-stricken dismay, her temptation. David Thewlis plays Dennis Sciama, the physicist who supervised Hawking’s doctoral work at Cambridge, as a man not easily impressed, because he numbers too many impressive people among his friends, colleagues, and former students, who is surprised by how impressed he is by Stephen and even more surprised by how fond he becomes of him. Harry Lloyd, as the chief among the good-hearted young men who surround Stephen in his university days, is the ideal friend, stalwart, loyal, understanding, and not about to let Stephen get the better of him despite his being a genius. As Jane’s mother, Emily Watson pretty much has only one line that matters but she makes the most of it to steal the scene. As Stephen’s father, Simon McBurney manages to be eccentrically charming while still being appalling in his selfishness and heartless rationality. And Maxine Peak plays Elaine Mason, the nurse who became Hawking’s second wife, as if the real Jane Hawking had paid her to get revenge for Jane’s sake: she’s smug, seductive, completely conscienceless, and obviously intent on coming between Stephen and Jane from the moment she picks up her letter board.
The lovely watercolor cinematography is by Benoît Delhomme. Music is by Jóhann Jóhannsson and I’m downloading the soundtrack now.
The Theory of Everything, directed by James Marsh, screenplay by Anthony McCarten, based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir Traveling to Infinity. Starting Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, David Thewlis, Harry Lloyd, Emily Watson, Maxine Peak, and Simon McBurney. Rated PG-13. Now in theaters.