The Theory of Everything


The Theory of Everything, directed by James Marsh. Written by Anthony McCarten, based on a book by Jane Hawking. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, and Harry Lloyd. Distributed by Focus Features, 2014. Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material. Running time: 123 minutes.

What would you do if your doctor told you that your muscles would soon completely shut down and that you would die in about two years? If you were Stephen Hawking—who was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in 1963 at age twenty-one—you would earn your PhD in theoretical physics from Cambridge, revolutionize your field, get married and father three children, earn substantial wealth and international fame, and live for several additional decades (Hawking is now seventy-three).

The Theory of Everything, based on the memoirs of Stephen’s first wife, Jane, touches on Stephen’s work in physics, his religious views, and the eventual dissolution of his first marriage. But the film focuses on Stephen’s heroic effort to succeed in life despite his severe physical limitations and on Jane’s heroic effort to help him do so.

One scene poignantly captures Jane’s determination. Before she marries Stephen, Stephen’s father tells her, “I don’t think you realize what lies ahead. Jane, his life is going to be very short, so be careful. . . . This will not be a fight, Jane; this is going to be a very heavy defeat—for all of us.” Jane replies calmly: “I know what you all think, that I don’t look like a terribly strong person, but I love him and he loves me. We’re going to fight this illness together—all of us.”

The main strength of the film is its lead performances. Eddie Redmayne as Stephen and Felicity Jones as Jane carry most of the film as they interact over the course of Stephen’s life, first prior to his diagnosis and then over the years of his physical decline. Redmayne faces the challenge of portraying someone with progressive motor neuron disease (aka amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease). As the disease gets worse and Stephen loses control of his body, Redmayne must convey the drama mostly through facial expressions—and he does so expertly. Jones skillfully portrays the wide range of Jane’s emotions, including her love for Stephen, her exasperation with her difficult life as a caregiver, and her eventual romantic feelings for another man. Both actors received Oscar nominations for their work, and Redmayne won. David Thewlis, as Stephen’s academic mentor, and Harry Lloyd, as Stephen’s roommate, also deserve special mention. Both men delivered fine performances.

The film devotes just enough discussion of Stephen’s work in physics to indicate the tremendous importance of that part of his life—the characters discuss his theoretical work on the origins of the universe, the radiation of black holes, and a hoped-for grand equation to unite the main branches of physics. Although theoretical physics is central to Stephen’s life, one need not agree with (or even understand) his theories to enjoy the film, which deals mainly with Stephen’s personal relationships.

The Theory of Everything is at times painful to watch as Stephen suffers physically as his condition declines. However, the film is not fundamentally about Stephen’s disease or suffering; it is about his choice to live his life as fully as he can despite his disease.

By dramatizing Stephen’s example, the film serves as an inspiring call to pursue your values no matter the setbacks. In one scene, after delivering a lecture to an audience of academics, Stephen answers a question about his philosophy of life. He says, in part, “However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. Where there is life, there is hope.” Stephen Hawking is proof of concept.

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