It is difficult to assess films about brilliant thinkers without making reference to Ron Howard’s Academy Award winner A Beautiful Mind, with its subtly twisted slow reveal of the tricky mind games going on in the head of its protagonist John Nash (Russell Crowe). Reality, it seems, is always in question for those with the daring capacity to challenge its rules and boundaries. Although there are times in such narratives (especially in A Beautiful Mind) when accessibility becomes an issue — when the illusions generated form a barrier to the emotional and psychological core of the character in question, and audiences are left stranded on a somewhat distant shore, able only to squint at the recessed figure across the divide.
Director James Marsh overcomes such chasms in The Theory of Everything, his far more accessible, engaging take on the life of world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) by attacking the issue upfront. His film, scripted by Anthony McCarten (who adapted his own novel Death of a Superhero in 2011), is based on the book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen from Hawking’s first wife Jane, which grants us intimate access into not only their initial meeting and early courtship, but also the many years of personal and medical struggles in order to maintain a safe environment in which Hawking could survive and thrive with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), while working on his groundbreaking expansion of the theory of relativity.
Marsh doesn’t have to crack the code of figuring out how to get inside Hawking’s mind because Jane, played with an astonishing degree of calm resolve and curiosity by Felicity Jones, allows us to ride shotgun with her on this fantastic voyage.
From the start, Hawking’s small frame contains both his uncontrolled and unfettered genius along with a thirst for engaging in even the smallest joys of life. And yet, as we watch the early debates he shares with Jane over the subject of religion, there is none of the bullying arrogance we might expect from such a brilliant thinker. Hawking appreciates the possibility of the intersection of ideas and theories, and it is this willingness to remain open that will surely serve him well throughout his journey.
But the film, for all of its focus on the brilliant and beautiful mind of Hawking (and the nearly show-stopping turn provided by Redmayne, which surprisingly feels free of the sentiment-tugging bravado one might assume in a role defined, in part, by disability), never strays too far from the relationship between Jane and Stephen.
In fact, it could be argued that the overly dramatic dynamic between the two of them comes to feel like a thick wet blanket at times that doesn’t quite allow the obvious warmth shared in their relationship to radiate and engulf the audience.
At every turn, we are reminded of how tough it must be for Jane to care for Stephen as ALS attempts to strip away another piece of what makes him so unique and vital, but despite countless frames featuring Jones’ resolute stare in the face of the hardships, we see them rising above it all, and we appreciate that it takes joy and love over the long haul to fuel a life like that of Stephen Hawking.
Yet, the relationship dynamic in Everything that truly achieves meaning is in the link Redmayne and Jones establish with us. Redmayne, in particular, doesn’t overplay the physical trauma, and he is aided and abetted by Marsh, who realizes that it is best to focus our attention on Redmayne’s eyes. Film performances draw us in close — too close if there is a dead sense behind the eyes of an actor, which is all the more important in a case like this, where we must believe (and be able to see) that there is not just life, but an uplifting spirit at play in an otherwise husk of a body. Redmayne captures the dazzling wonder that could have been locked away in Hawking.
And special praise belongs to Jones, laboring in the far more thankless role here. As Jane, she stands next to the great figure, never merely in his shadow, which means that we do the same. In their exchanges — the ones not bogged down in the self-conscious drama of surviving ALS — Jones reminds us that Jane truly was a fiery independent woman and thinker in her own right, because she exerted her own impactful gravitational force pulling Stephen close to her.
If The Theory of Everything had featured more of that, it would have lived up to its billing. (Opens Friday) (PG-13) Grade: B (tt stern-enzi)