There is a scene in The Theory of Everything in which Stephen Hawking first finds out he has Motor Neurone Disease, and through which director James Marsh creates perhaps the best on-screen realisation of a terminal diagnosis. The doctor is somewhat warped by a fish eye lens to bring him overbearingly close and yet obscurely distant, his distorted image reflecting the incomprehensible words flooding the mind of a young Hawking. In the background another doctor and patient pass by, blurred, but discussing some other ailment. It is a tragic moment of truth in life; that even as you are given the most shockingly important news you have ever heard, all around you there are others suffering their own pains, and yours is just a tiny blip in a cosmos of mortality.
I cite the above scene as it is one of the few where the filmmaking manages to match the stellar performance given by Eddie Redmayne. For this is a performance based film. And the two leads (Redmayne as Hawking and Felicity Jones as his wife Jane) are so incredibly magnetic that it’s hard to notice anything else going on around them.
That’s not to say the rest of the film is stale or easy to slip into the background, far from it. There are great moments of symbolism and visual thematics – a winding staircase leads to an ever shrinking black circular window after Hawking first ponders time/space singularity – but the story of these two people’s lives is what carries the most weight. Sensibly the production team let them take the fore.
Charting Hawking’s life from 1963 up to the release of A Brief History of Time (and a bit beyond) the film doesn’t shy from the struggles of Hawking as both an able bodied and disabled man. It makes a somewhat bitter-sweet point that it took Hawking’s illness to truly focus his mind, and allow him to create his most brilliant work.
Throughout all of this it is Jane who is his rock, and in the face of emotional oblivion, is the unwavering support that gives Hawking’s life purpose. Their continued battles over science and faith provide sparks of romantic whimsy and add to the great humour of the film (of which there is much).
For those that know the story of Hawking (and if you don’t this paragraph veers into spoiler territory) you will no doubt remember his famous split from Jane to be with his live in nurse Elaine. It is this story beat in Hawking’s life that speaks to the evolution of a human life. As fellow Cultoid editor James W pointed out, Jane loves Hawking for who he was, and Elaine loves him for who he is. Hawking has grown weary of being a burden, knowing that Jane has the choice for a different (perhaps better) life. The fact that he uses this as moral evidence that his unfaithfulness was ok is questionable, but is nevertheless the choice that was made. And the split is an absolute killer to watch.
In reality this is Jane’s story. The screenplay, based on her autobiography, is dripping with admiration for the man she loved whilst even handedly explaining that her own personal struggle was just as universally epic as Hawking’s scientific endeavours.
The title then seems immaterial at the end of all things. There may be a ‘theory of everything’ out there somewhere, but the only theory that matters as ascribed by this story, is that behind every great man there is a much, much greater woman.