By Alex Nicoll
The Theory of Everything begins with a scene of Stephen Hawking riding a bicycle. This image is all foreshadowing: of Stephen’s impending diagnosis, of his loss of motor function, of his permanent seat in another kind of wheeled vehicle. Throughout the first act of the film, the camera finds a way to emphasize legs in almost every single scene. Stephen’s occasional shakes, tremors and dropped coffee cups come across as warnings of the earthquake that is about to destroy his motor functions.
However, the film’s focus lies elsewhere, emphasized by a university buddy’s assertion, en route to the party where he meets Jane, that maybe love is the thing that will create the universal equation he’s been looking for.
As the movie continued, my fear that this film was more convention than substance seemed to be confirmed. A tale of two lovers who couldn’t be stopped by anything, not even one of the most horrific diseases known to man. While this sort of story can pull at one’s heartstrings, when it’s too devoted to the conventions of Hollywood drama it can feel redundant. I felt as though I had seen this movie before, as if I was watching yet another biopic of a “Great Person” and their “Great Love.” About 45 minutes in, I felt like I had already watched the whole thing.
Yes, it found a very special way to make me feel emotions, but it felt like I was being “made” to feel, instead of choosing to feel. This is not to say that the conventions were not well-executed. Director James Marsh frames each location like it is a painting. Eddie Redmayne captures Stephen Hawking’s mannerisms perfectly, while also providing an emotionally nuanced performance. He is not impersonating Hawking, but actually stepping into his person. Felicity Jones plays Jane as a confident and strong woman, able to commit herself fully to a dying man and then take care of him as he stubbornly refuses to stop living. I felt strongly for Jane, but at times, early in the movie, her determination appears to cloud her deeper feelings.
About halfway through the film, when Jane begins to let her own issues show, the film really finds itself. The rigid railroad tracks that were leading the movie to its conclusion as “another Hollywood biopic” are derailed. I can’t tell you exactly what happens, but know that Jane and Stephen’s love does actually change. It evolves beyond the superhero-y, true-love-can-save-the-world sentiment that it starts with and becomes something flawed, and therefore something much more real.
Jane and Stephen’s relationship becomes increasingly complex, and in these complexities the film begins to define itself as a unique creation and not one that fits a cookie-cutter type, as I had initially feared. It deals with all of the stresses of a marriage, from kids to money, as well as the more specific issues of scientific fame and an increasingly debilitating disease. Stephen changes from a historic icon to a real man, and therein lies the power of the movie.
As earlier stated, Stephen’s university mate asks him whether the equation that could unite Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics may be love. This is just his sexually-obsessed mind speaking, but its applicability to the film still stands. For the first half of the movie, love is surely the solution. Stephen is basically kept alive by his devotion to Jane and to his work. Their love seems like an impregnable suit of armor, a protection against the world and its constant change. However, like always, the world finds its ways to seep into the cracks. Where once things were immutably permanent, they can quickly morph until they are unrecognizable.
If you pay any attention to cosmology, it isn’t a spoiler that the perfect equation to marry the two disparate strands of physics was never found. In the same way, it shouldn’t be a spoiler for a movie so focused on real people that Jane and Steven don’t find an absolutely perfect love. Yet, in their search for perfection, they find a sort of real love that’s all the more precious for its reality. While this movie may at first seem to promise perfection, it truly soars when it hits something much more resonant: real human connection.