One of the painful truths about love is that it is messy. Movies tend to trim off all the rough edges in favor of a neater, more digestible narrative, and the love story between Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane seems like a perfect candidate for that sort of nice, clean, safe repackaging.
What makes “The Theory Of Everything,” directed by James (“Man On Wire”) Marsh, so very effective is that it's not afraid of the mess, the contradictions, the lunacy that is part and parcel with love, and both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones do exemplary work in the lead roles. “Theory” is unabashedly nostalgic, shot through the hazy filter of warm memory, especially as it opens in 1963 with a young Stephen at Cambridge, still wrestling to figure out what his life's work will be.
Redmayne does a nice job of showing us the slow escalation of the disease that eventually traps Hawking inside his own body, and it would be easy to be cynical about the awards-buzz conversations about his work here because he's playing a disability. That's really not what makes the film noteworthy, though, and I was surprised to gradually realize that Marsh's film is more mature than that, more authentic in what it has to say about connection and affection and love.
The film is based on Jane Hawking's book, “Traveling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen,” and Anthony McCarten's screenplay is almost deceptively simple. What the film does so well is something that I feel film frequently fails at: instead of talking about love, it attempts to demonstrate the real way that it works, and the way people behave because of it. The first moments of attraction, the gradual development of feelings, that first kiss, the thrill of those tiny moments of contact… when I think back on relationships I've had, these are the things I remember indelibly, and the film does a very good job of laying out those milestones for Stephen and Jane.
The big difference, of course, between this relationship and any other typical relationship, is that Stephen Hawking is a genius whose work expands the way the entire human race understands their relationship with the universe, and also that he is struck down by a physical disability that cruelly threatens to lock him into his body, unable to communicate with the outside world. It would be one thing if they had been married for several years before the disease took hold, but that's not the case. Instead, it was the declaration from a doctor that Hawking only had two years to live that seemed to motivate Jane and Stephen to live as hard as possible, as soon as possible. They are married and they start a family and, against all odds, Stephen just keeps living. And living. And living.
One of the hardest things about the film for both performers is that they have to play a pretty broad span of time here, a full quarter-century, and it's handled in a way that feels subtle. They are aged via hair and make-up, but much more of the transformation is handled through the details of performance. Where the film starts to get messy, by design, is later in Stephen's life, when he ends up falling in love with his nurse, originally hired by Jane, even as Jane struggles with her feelings towards Jonathan (Charlie Cox), a local choir director who also helped Jane with Stephen's care. If they wanted to clean this up and make it more of a conventional love story, they could easily have ended the film at an earlier point and it would have been the story of a man who was kept alive long past his stated expiration date by the love of a good and devoted woman. By allowing the film to also incorporate the material about Jane's disenchantment with living in Stephen's shadow and about Stephen falling for his nurse, the film plays fair. Yes, there is a strong chance that Stephen would have never been able to do any of the landmark work that has made him such an important scientific figure if he hadn't had the support of Jane in those early days as his heath deteriorated. But in showing us the way this relationship wound down of its own accord, the film embraces that messy, difficult, unpredictable side of love, and it feels like that honesty makes all the difference.
There is a moment late in the film involving Stephen giving a lecture and a woman who drops a pen that is truly remarkable, just on a performance level, and it's also a major risk for Marsh as a filmmaker. If you try for a moment like this and you get it wrong, it could easily just derail the movie completely. I love it precisely because of how carefully it highlights the incredibly technical nature of Redmayne's performance, but it does it in a way that also packs a huge emotional punch. “The Theory Of Everything” is a modest film, a simple film, but an honest and impressively-restrained one, and it should serve to launch Redmayne into rarefied air as an actor, deservedly so.
“The Theory Of Everything” opens in theaters Friday.