Don’t come to “The Theory of Everything” for the science — there isn’t any. At least, not enough to reasonably sustain a two-hour film about the most celebrated theoretical physicist of our time. Anyway, black holes and dark stars aren’t why we’re interested in Stephen Hawking. We’re drawn by the paradox of that big brain in that ruined body, by the tenacity it takes to turn the death sentence of ALS into a long and illustrious career. We’re touched by the tragedy of a vital mind locked away, awed by the technology that allows that mind to reach beyond its prison, moved by the effort, humbled by the discoveries, and, yes, darkly fascinated by a freak-show appeal we’re much too polite to mention out loud.
Still, “The Theory of Everything,” which is as tastefully appointed and superbly produced as a movie can be, is predicated on that appeal. James Marsh’s movie knows that the average puny-brained human — meaning you and me — is probably less interested in what Hawking thinks than how he lives and what kind of person he might be beyond the motorized wheelchair and robo-voice. Based on “Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen,” a 2007 memoir by the physicist’s first wife, Jane, “Theory” is a love story and then a falling-out-of-love story. The first is charmingly, heartbreakingly well-told, the second more mundane and more beholden to the clichés of high-end Oscar season biopics even as it provides insights into what it might be like to share one’s life with a great thinker who’s also a fallible man.
“The Theory of Everything,” in other words, is Jane’s movie as much as it is Stephen’s, and while Eddie Redmayne’s performance deserves every bit of praise and statuary it will get, Felicity Jones has the subtler, less showy role to play and matches him frame for frame. The first half of Marsh’s film re-creates the University of Cambridge in the early 1960s, when two girls could enter a university social to the tune of “Heat Wave.” One of them takes in the crowd of science majors and sighs in frustration. The other, Jane — plainly lovely in her period frock and flip hairdo — looks across the room and is smitten.
As are we. Redmayne, a mercurial, galvanic talent who has labored in smaller films (“Savage Grace,” “The Yellow Handkerchief”) or smaller roles in bigger films (Marius in “Les Miserables,” the “my” of “My Week With Marilyn”), makes the young Stephen an utterly charismatic figure — a wonk lit up with the delight of thought. That delight encompasses the mysteries of the cosmos and the mysteries of women. His hair a spray of unruly ginger, his Buddy Holly horn-rims askew, Stephen is physically awkward and magnetically confident — a doubter (and an atheist) set on finding answers.
Or The Answer. The film’s title comes from Hawking’s search for an equation that will unite the macro of Einstein’s relativity and the micro of quantum physics, two languages that appear to have nothing in common. The movie dramatizes his search in meetings with professors and scientists: David Thewlis as Hawking’s mentor Dennis Sciama, Christian McKay as mathematical physicist Roger Penrose. There’s one moment, in which Stephen is inspired to come up with the notion of Hawking Radiation by staring at a fireplace, that’s pure Hollywood — i.e., it didn’t happen.
By contrast, the life of Jane Hawking feels more earthbound and real. “The Theory of Everything” depicts Stephen’s increasing physical stumbles while at Cambridge and then the diagnosis of ALS. The doctors call it “motor neuron disease” and give him two years to live. Despite the warnings of his father (Simon McBurney, bluffly intelligent) and Jane’s mother (Emily Watson), the couple weds and has children, even as Stephen moves from cane to crutches to wheelchair, his voice becoming more gnarled, his thoughts more explosive than ever.
At a certain point, the movie looks at Jane’s lot — three young children and a husband who requires round-the-clock care and refuses outside help — and says, Well. Marsh (“Man on Wire,” “Project Nim,” “Shadow Dancer”) is British and knows the pain and comedy of British reserve: When Jane’s mum suggests the daughter get some time for herself by signing up for the church choir, Jane gives her a level look and says, “I think that’s the most English thing anyone has ever said.”
But it’s there she meets Jonathan (Charlie Cox), a choirmaster and recent widower with whom she embarks on a passionately repressed not-quite-affair. When all is said and done, “The Theory of Everything” is a woman’s picture in the classic mold — that’s a compliment, not a criticism — with a heroine torn between two men, one a genius, the other merely very good. Stephen is acknowledged as not a saint but a man with ego and the normal lusts, and when he finally brings in a caregiver, Elaine (Eileen Davies), who winks and opens his copy of Penthouse for him, it’s only a matter of time before the inevitable parting with his wife.
That leads to the most perversely moving scene in “The Theory of Everything,” in which Stephen and Jane survey the wreckage of their marriage, she in tears while he can only convey his emotions in the flat, buzzy tones of his computerized voice. He wants to hug her but just moves his wheelchair forward and bumps her leg. It’s a horrible moment, sad and surreal and nearly comic in an awful way, and nothing else in the latter half of the movie comes close to its strange power.
Hawking himself has seen this film and pronounced it “broadly true,” and that diplomatic generalization touches on what’s right about it and what’s wrong. The love story that begins “The Theory of Everything” is adorable and the rest is a sigh at the realities that intrude on all love stories. Very little, though, is allowed to spoil the sense of Hawking’s triumphant march against his illness, Jane’s unsung part in it, or the filmmakers’ splendiferous taste and discretion in bringing us this story and in which we’re meant to share. That ignores the real hurt at the heart of Jane Hawking’s version of events, and while “Theory” stands to win audiences and awards in equal measure, it’s hamstrung by its own perfectly arranged reticence. Maybe the science isn’t necessary, but an emotional Big Bang might have been welcome.
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Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.