In an interview that ran a few days ago, The Telegraph asked Keira Knightley, who has a supporting role in the upcoming Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, whether she’d ever been offered a movie about a female genius. Knightly came up empty: “No,” she responded. “What is up with that?” Knightley then lobbed the question back to the reporter: “Go on, you’re a writer, write one. Do it! I would love to play a genius.” The newspaper ran a version of that last quote as the article’s headline, the point being that if Knightley doesn’t get asked to play a biopic lead, it’s unlikely other actresses do.
The Theory of Everything, which continues its theatrical run this weekend, does not exactly rise up to meet Knightley’s challenge, but it does take a step in that general direction. Everything belongs in part to the troubled-male-genius genre, and in part to the feel-good disability movie type that tends to feature singularly extraordinary men as well. And it’s the performance of British up-and-comer Eddie Redmayne as the theoretical physicist-cosmologist that’s getting the bulk of the Oscar attention, following up his buzzy hearthrob role as Marius in Les Miserables.
But The Theory of Everything also stars Felicity Jones. Ultimately this isn't a biopic about Hawkings or even about his quest to unite the general theory of relativity with quantum mechanics, the “everything” the title so grandiosely refers to (though that gets a lot of symbolic mileage). It’s about his fulfilling, and failed, first marriage with Jane Wilde (Jones), whom he met as a graduate student at Cambridge and remained married to for 30 years.
Contemporary viewers probably know about Stephen Hawking thanks to Stephen Hawking himself. His memoir A Brief History in Time sold more than 10 million copies in 20 years, and due to the Intel computer-based system that allows him to communicate orally, at 72 years old he still does starry interviews and gives inspiring lectures.
But The Theory of Everything, adapted from Wilde’s 2007 memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, favors the female perspective. Wilde was initially much more negative about the marriage in her first account of it, 1999’s Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen. The 2007 book was essentially a massive update that uplifted the tone, an overall beneficence that is preserved in this movie’s meet-cute story: When the film opens, it’s 1964, and Stephen’s a graduate student at Cambridge, limbs all functioning, hormones all raging. At a house party he locks eyes with Jane, the arts major (Spanish medieval poetry) to his science, the infusion of faith to his atheist theories. She wishes him well with the equation he tells her he wants to solve—the whole combine-relativity-and-quantum thing—and basically, it’s love at first sight.
Stephen quickly dispatches Jane’s pesky boyfriend, seducing Jane with fun facts about UV rays and poetic metaphors about the stars. But after a terrible fall on the Cambridge quad culminates some problems he’s been having with shaking limbs, Stephen gets a crushing diagnosis: He has motor-neuron disease, and two years to live. He holes himself up in his room and distances himself from Jane. It’s a testament to both director David Marsh’s light touch and composer Nicklas Schmidt’s easy-listening score that the existential despair is not drummed up too much.
But it’s also a testament to the close attention the movie pays to Jane, who drives Stephen out of his solitude, coaxes him into marriage because she has faith he will survive, and nurses him through his physical decline just as she’s having children and tending to them, too. Her decision seems a tad naïve, but at the same time fierce. In an early scene Stephen’s father tells her his illness won’t be a battle, it will be a “huge defeat.” Years later, with Stephen still alive, marriage on the rocks, Jane’s the one fighting the fight, and making the executive decisions to keep him that way. Stephen, the movie shows, isn’t the only extraordinary one here.
The same could be said for Felicity Jones’s performance, which matches Redmayne’s uncanny appropriation of Hawking’s tics and humor with a more subdued transformation. As plenty of other reviews have mentioned, Redmayne’s performance crafts a compelling and astonishing facsimile of Hawking. He gives young Stephen many of the characteristics that Hawking becomes known for later in his life in the grips of ALS: the twinkly humor, the eyeglasses that are always askance, the bowed posture, the tense limbs. Likeable though he is, Redmayne doesn’t shy from portraying Hawking’s darker, self-absorbed side, either.
But as the years slip by and Redmayne settles first into Hawking’s wheelchair, then into the cosmologist's real, trademarked computerized voice, Jones slips on the demeanor of an overworked mother. How could she not be, with Stephen letting the children run wild? But Jane, fatigued as she looks, infuses some unexpected life into what otherwise might be some very dull marital drama: When her mother innocently suggests she try out for the church choir to take some time for herself, Jane ends up meeting the attractive choir-master who will become her second husband.
The Theory of Everything is not daring enough to challenge its actors to show the visceral fallout incurred by this—amongst other—emotional infidelities. This is a movie overseen by Wilde and approved by Hawking; it’s not a probing, dark investigation of their psyches. The second act’s wordless simmer is about as conflicted as it gets, and separation rarely looks so serene (or educational) for both parties.
The surface of the movie is also glossy, with Cambridge’s Gothic architecture, precious cinematic techniques, and Jones in authentic '70s bowtie blouses. But it’s hard to begrudge the cutesy ending sequence, just like it’s hard to resist the way the film brings out the children for sentimental effect and features visual motifs inspired by Stephen’s theory about black holes. That’s because in spite of all the period-piece pleasures, Marsh spends the most time on tight back-and-forth shots of his actors’ faces. All the better to let Jones and Redmayne share the spotlight.
The Theory of Everything is remarkably loyal to Jane for an Oscars-bound pic about one of the greatest scientists of our era. If the film unfolds like a fairytale, at least it’s a fairytale that doesn’t often get told. That is to say, one that reappropriates the dominant fantasy of the singular historic male genius to honor the experience—at once exhausting and exhilarating—of the woman who dared to sign on to be Mrs. Stephen Hawking.