Summer is for the stories of the big muscles, but winter brings out the real superheroes. Alan Turing won World War II (The Imitation Game). Martin Luther King, Jr. brought about the Civil Rights movement (Selma). And Stephen Hawking’s works, including an explanation of the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and black holes, have advanced science and our world. Hawking’s story is told in The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones and directed by James Marsh. As a bio-pic, it is pretty conventional, and as a movie it is pretty straight-forward, but as a human viewing experience, it is pretty sensational.
A lot is made by critics about the human spirit. Movies that claim to showcase the strength of the human spirit are celebrated, revered, awarded. But, often, other things such as resilience, courage, strength, even stubbornness or pride are mistaken for spirit. What exactly is the definition of human spirit? Is it the fortitude one shows through tough times? The ability to carry on past injustice? The strength to endure heartbreaking loss? The insistence on success when all odds are stacked against you? Whatever the definition or how it is outwardly portrayed on film, the resonance and depth of this spirit is certainly something that must be communicated to the audience in a way that transcends action and dialogue, it must be built into character, into motivation, into something relatable—something, well, uniquely human: frail, flawed, vulnerable, emotional, analytical, compassionate and aware. So, when you are telling a story about the strength of the human spirit, it helps to have a relatable figure at the center. So what happens when the story you are telling is that of one of the world’s smartest people? Relatable is not a word most people would associate with Stephen Hawking, the world’s foremost (and most famous) theoretical physicist, and yet, The Theory of Everything manages to not only be relatable, but exceedingly human. How does it do it? By actually being a bio-pic that’s not a biography at all, but a story about a relationship, which is something we can all relate to.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Theory of Everything a “love story” as the marketers are, but it is much more a two-person saga than a single-person story. However, the central figure in this movie is, without question, that of Stephen Hawking, played with magnificent craft, detail, physicality and realism by Eddie Redmayne. Felicity Jones plays Hawking’s girlfriend-then-wife Jane, and she is strong as well, but anything and anyone else in this film is clearly in support of the celestial supernova that is Stephen Hawking and Redmayne’s incredible and indelible performance. But it is in that support that the awareness of his humanity, his vulnerability, and, yes, his spirit, comes soaring out. I wouldn’t go so far as to say without her he is nothing, but the film is clearly from her perspective (it’s no wonder—it is based on her memoir), so there is a clear partnership that forms and the impression given that he would not be who he is today if it hadn’t been for her love, dedication and support in the early years. And this is where The Theory of Everything gets its heft and heart.
The human body is quite a thing, as is the mind, and when the two fight each other so uniquely and so dramatically as they do in the case of Stephen Hawking—one shutting down at the exact moment the other takes flight—it does make for quite a powerful, inspiring and engaging story. The Theory of Everything works best when it focuses on the most human—and relatable—elements of Hawking’s story and when Redmayne is able to connect in the most nuanced, non-verbal ways. It’s clear that Hawking is not the world’s most sensitive and compassionate human being. It’s a good thing the movie about him found a way to be.