The intricate workings of a rare and remarkable mind are rendered in simple, accessible terms in “The Theory of Everything,” a sensitively directed inspirational biopic centered around the great British physicist Stephen Hawking and his mind-over-body struggle with motor neuron disease. Striving to pay equal tribute to Hawking’s first wife, Jane (on whose memoir the film is based), and her tireless devotion to him until their 25-year marriage ended in 1995, director James Marsh similarly attempts to find intimate, personal applications for Hawking’s grand cosmic inquiries, tracing the story of how the author of “A Brief History of Time” came to defy time itself. Still, what’s onscreen is less a cerebral experience than a stirring and bittersweet love story, inflected with tasteful good humor, that can’t help but recall earlier disability dramas like “My Left Foot” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Superb performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones should stand the Focus Features release in good critical and commercial stead when it bows Nov. 7 Stateside.
A brief prologue at Buckingham Palace quickly dissolves, in rather on-the-nose fashion, from a slowly rolling wheelchair to a fast-spinning bicycle, as young Stephen (Redmayne) joyfully races a friend through the streets of Cambridge in 1963. A skinny, rumpled-looking fellow who peers out from behind perpetually dirty, thick-rimmed glasses, Stephen is a brilliant graduate student in cosmology, and already deeply fascinated by time, the origins of the universe and other theoretical concepts that will occupy much of his later writing and research. But even as his intellectual prowess knows no limits, his physical vigor soon abandons him, as foreshadowed early on when he idly knocks over a cup of tea. At around the half-hour mark his head hits the pavement with a sickening crack, at which point Stephen learns he has MND, a disease related to ALS that will gradually shut down all muscular control, and that he will live for only two years at most.
Unwilling to accept this grim diagnosis, however, is Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), whom Stephen immediately falls in love with and marries — never mind that, as a student of foreign languages and poetry as well as a devout member of the Church of England, she represents in many ways his intellectual and philosophical opposite. (Debating Jane on the existence of God, Stephen notes that he has “a slight problem with the whole celestial-dictator premise,” one of many wry witticisms that pepper Anthony McCarten’s literate script.) But their differing systems of belief (she has one, he doesn’t) turn out to be a unifying principle rather than a divisive one, and indeed, one of the film’s most bracing thematic motifs is Hawking’s refusal to lock himself into rigidly predetermined conclusions, his openness to reversing and contradicting his own monumental work in pursuit of ever higher and deeper forms of knowledge.
Jane is bravely determined to help her husband fight his debilitating illness and enjoy however many years they have together, which happily turn out to be far more than expected (Hawking is now 72). Yet Marsh takes pains to convey the heavy burden of Stephen’s physical decline in every grueling particular, and Redmayne’s performance nails all the outward manifestations without unnecessary exaggeration: the contorted wrist, the drooping head, the stooped posture, the inward-pointing toes, the reliance on crutches and wheelchair, and the increasingly unintelligible speech that ultimately led Hawking to use a speech-generating device. Redmayne palpably conveys the man’s frustration and humiliation at each fresh deprivation, from his inability to transfer food from plate to mouth to his difficulty holding and playing with his children (Stephen and Jane have three kids, the disease having mercifully not interfered with every key bodily function).
Looking after this particular family, of course, is a full-time job that takes an enormous toll on Jane, whom Jones invests with warmth, spirit and a determination motivated as much by her character’s religious faith as by her love for Stephen. One of the more refreshing aspects of “The Theory of Everything” is the way it acknowledges what it really means to be long-suffering wife, that regular yet often strictly decorative fixture of far too many great-man Hollywood biopics. In Jane’s case, that means fending off nasty rumors and her own undeniable temptations when her church choirmaster, a handsome and sensitive widower named Jonathan Hellyer Jones (a fine Charlie Cox), becomes a close family friend, informal caretaker to Stephen and rowdy father figure to the kids.
The later passages are replete with sniffle-inducing sentiments, underplayed marital tensions and no shortage of amusing jokes, drawing on Stephen’s seemingly bottomless reserves of self-deprecating humor. Eventually the story arrives at the painful matter of the couple’s divorce, in scenes that feel somewhat truncated and show clear signs of genteel narrative airbrushing: Understandably, the filmmakers chose to adapt not Jane Hawking’s angry and controversial 1999 tell-all, “Music to Move the Stars,” but rather her more tempered and forgiving 2008 follow-up, “Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen,” and their sympathies feel more or less evenly divided between two individuals who remain friends even after the end of their marriage.
It’s worth noting that “The Theory of Everything” derives its title from Hawking’s tireless search for a single universal equation that will account for all existence, reconciling quantum mechanics and Einstein’s general relativity; dramatically speaking, the filmmakers seem to have incorporated that principle by extending a generous spirit of inclusion toward nearly everyone onscreen. Admittedly, they can’t resist aiming a few bitchy jabs at Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), the protective and strong-willed nurse whom Stephen married in 1995 (and whom he divorced in 2006), but even she comes off as well as she could under the circumstances.
Elsewhere, McCarten’s script offers a clipped overview of Hawking’s achievements while keeping the scientific and mathematical discourse at a level that laypeople in the audience will readily comprehend, employing such figures as Cambridge professor and leading cosmologist Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis) to tease out Hawking’s head-spinning notions about black holes, space-time singularities and the boundaries of the universe. Elsewhere, the film resorts to effective if elementary visual associations: A cheerfully blazing fire neatly serves up the second law of thermodynamics, while the sight of Stephen and Jane twirling beside the river Cam playfully and romantically underscores the reversibility of time.
Marsh has proven himself an expert stylist in his dramatic features (“Shadow Dancer,” his chapter of the “Red Riding” trilogy) as well as his documentaries (“Man on Wire,” “Project Nim”), and he works with d.p. Benoit Delhomme to lend this film a richness of color and texture that keep any sense of British period-piece mustiness at bay. The effect is heightened by Johann Johansson’s score, whose arpeggio-like repetitions and progressions at times evoke the compositions of Philip Glass, working in concert with Jinx Godfrey’s swiftly edited montages to lyrical and emotionally extravagant effect. John Paul Kelly’s production design, Steven Noble’s costumes (entailing 77 wardrobe changes to complete Redmayne’s disheveled-academic look), and well-chosen Cambridge locations uphold the film’s high production standards across the board.
Amid the fine supporting cast, Simon McBurney and Emily Watson make welcome, too-brief appearances as Stephen’s father and Jane’s mother, respectively, both of whom get at least one scene in which to dole out loving, sensible advice.