When producer Eric Fellner introduced “The Theory of Everything,” a portrait of the marriage of Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde Hawking, at its L.A. premiere, he told the audience he has shown the film to Professor Hawking. Afterwards the theoretical physicist told him via his computer-generated voice that the film was “broadly true.”
That indeed is the perfect, most succinct way to describe this somewhat fictionalized and very circumspect adaptation of Jane Hawking’s memoir “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.”
Such a movie can hardly do justice to Hawking’s scientific achievements over a long life time. Nor, with both parties still very much alive, is the film able to plumb all the nuances of the tricky relationship between this unusual couple and the particular challenges faced in that union.
Indeed the memoir itself is something of a rewrite of a less cheerful memoir, “Music to Move the Stars,” written during Hawking’s second marriage when Jane felt estranged from her former husband.
So given these potential stumbling blocks, it’s a minor miracle the movie turned out as fine as it does. It was adapted by novelist-screenwriter Anthony McCarten and directed by James Marsh, director of such superb documentaries as “Man on Wire” and “Project Nim.”
Mostly, the success of “Theory of Everything” owes to two extraordinary performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as the couple.
With an assist from prosthetic teeth and ears, Redmayne is made to look very much like the famous professor. Yet the actor manages to create a singular character even in Hawking’s youth, while studying for a Ph.D in Oxford.
It’s not just that he’s an odd bird but that he has a mischievous streak, a fine wit, and loopy attitude toward life, wooing a girl or pursuing his studies.
Then with the on-set of the motor neuron disease that eventually crippled his body but left his brilliant mind intact, Redmayne finds the means with glance and blinks to convey the brashness and vigor of his character’s intellect and thirst for life.
In many ways though, Jones has an even greater task. While able to suggest a character with a sturdy backbone and a determined love for a man she knows will grow increasingly handicapped, the actress must also carry a greater share of the movie’s burden as she frequently acts as her husband’s translator when his speech becomes more blurred.
She must also keep audience sympathy as Jane becomes increasingly drawn emotionally to a handsome choirmaster, Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox doing a terrific job in a difficult role), even as she continues to care for if not act as a servant to her brilliant husband.
Jones is the movie’s life force. Her Jane is determined to marry Stephen even when under the supposed death sentence of his disease. She forges a life for him and her, sometimes battling even her own husband’s contentious ways.
Thus the movie tippy-toes around many thorny personal issues about this cerebral ménage-à-trios once Charlie becomes a virtual family member and the professor’s own growing interest in one of his nurses. Not to mention his strident views on God and left-wing political involvement (on the latter the film is virtually silent).
The filmmakers wisely hue close to the emotional lives of its two characters, branching off occasionally to keep you up to date on Stephen’s on-going quest to reconcile quantum physics with Einstein’s theory of relativity, the births of three children and the growing challenges of a wife to maintain a “normal” household for a man who lives much of the time in his own mind.
So cast aside all doubts about this being a movie about disease and handicaps. It’s about the zest for life, especially a life of the mind, and a tale of resilience, energized by superb acting across the board.
Then there is this: What crippled Hawking is closely associated with ALS. Hawking’s long and brilliant life — he’s now 72 — in the face of the diagnosis (when he was given two years to live) tells us we do not fully understand this disease.
He has defied all odds, supposedly. Or do the odds change when one is more mentally active than a gifted athlete AND a championship chess player combined?
Whatever the reason, Hawking is the rock star of astrophysics and an inspiration to everyone on the planet. And this movie about him is broadly true.
Opens: November 7, 2014 (Focus Features)
Production companies: A Focus Features presentation of a Working Title production
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, David Thewlis, Harry Lloyd, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, Christian McKay, Maxine Peake
Director: James Marsh
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Based on a book by: Jane Hawking
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce, Anthony McCarten
Executive producers: Amelia Granger, Liza Chasin, David Kosse
Director of photography: Benoit Delhomme
Music: Johann Johannsson
Production designer: John Paul Kelly
Costume designer: Steven Noble
Editor: Jinx Godfrey
PG-13 rating, 123 minutes