‘What if the secret of the universe had something to do with sex?’
The familiar public image of modern physics, Professor Stephen Hawking is one of the world’s most renowned scientific figures even if, to many, his concepts, whilst fascinating, are beyond the detailed understanding of the millions who purchased his best-selling look at cosmological history A Brief History of Time. Also familiar to this recognition is Professor Hawking’s physical condition; he has lived with Motor Neurone Disease for most of his adult life. These aspects were bought to the fore in the recent autobiographically based documentary Hawking(2013) but The Theory of Everything takes a look at his story from another perspective. Adapted from Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by his wife Jane Hawking, the film covers the decades from his early university graduation in 1963 and from the onset of MND and the eventual acceptance of his pioneering astrophysics and cosmological theories. It is also a film about people falling in love and how relationships can be altered through a multitude of situations; a bio-pic about love, life, success and tragedy.
In 1963 at Cambridge university, student Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is seeking qualifications, equations, theories and girls. He’s a cosmologist but despite the tricky thought processes required for his studies, thoughts of the opposite sex are also on his mind. He meets and tries to woo arts undergraduate Jane (Felicity Jones), who is nice enough to reply to his advances with a positive response, ‘I hope you find your equation.’ Despite Stephen’s distinctly atheist principles ‘I have a slight problem with a celestial dictator,’ he meets her after church one day and they begin a relationship. All proceeds well, they enjoy each other’s company and Stephen begins to make progress in the world of academia, particularly with respect to the pioneering work of Roger Penrose (with whom he would generate vital cosmological theories). Everything is looking just fine, until Stephen starts feeling dizzy and disorientated. He faints and falls, crashing his head. The diagnosis is worrying, he has Motor Neurone Disease, and the doctor declares that he has, at most, two years to live and that he will develop serious physical and communication problems; ‘Your thoughts won’t change but eventually no-one will know what they are,’ he is told. Stephen takes the news as badly as can be expected but Jane is determined to support him for as long as he lives. They marry and have children. As it turns out, the doctor’s prognosis is wrong, but Stephen’s physical condition does deteriorate and the family eventually have to acknowledge that they need help. As Jane points out, ‘We are not a normal family,’ despite Stephen beating the odds whilst continuing to further human understanding of the universe: the theory of its beginning and ultimately the theory of everything, whether it be physics or emotion.
If watched as a standalone film without knowing Hawking’s background, The Theory of Everything would still make for believable, entertaining and emotional viewing. As a bio-pic it is thoroughly engaging with excellent performances all round, covering decades of the couple’s relationship -showing the normality of student parties, the May Ball with fireworks, friends, weddings and children but also with hospitals, rehabilitation and scientific excellence. The Theory of Everything covers the latter in a way that is clever in that it doesn’t balk on explaining Hawking’s significant contribution to physics but doesn’t swamp the viewer with too much of the cosmologically unfamiliar. Instead the black hole and singularity theories are referenced visually, such as milk swirling in coffee cups or shots of spiral staircases. The passing of time is depicted using grainy reproductions of blown-up 8mm or 16mm family film footage which helps enhance the sense of time and place, as does the score with its pop and church choir music, as well as referencing Stephen’s love of Wagner (with one concert providing a moving scene both contextually and in the relationship to lengthy attempt at viewing Der Ring des Nibelungen).
Overall, The Theory of Everything is a thoroughly moving, thought-provoking and well constructed drama with everything a story needs – a fascinating tale where the characters face both triumphs and adversity. And it’s true. Even if you wonder whether there is a way to ‘try and work out the mathematical properties of happiness’.