At Britain's prestigious University of Cambridge, in 1963, a bright young physics student named Stephen Hawking muses: If only there were an equation to explain everything in the universe.
Hawking will in time come up with important and useful equations vis-à-vis theoretical physics and the creation of the universe. But there won't be any explanation for the day-to-day side of life, buffeted by the mysterious forces of love, chance and tragedy. Such challenges are simply met, never truly understood.
This tension between facts and fate forms the spine of James Marsh's bio-pic The Theory of Everything, which recounts the professional and personal life of Hawking — from his college days to the publication of his mega-selling A Brief History of Time and his enduring "celebrity physicist" status.
It all begins well: At Cambridge, the nerdy, floppy-haired Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) successfully courts a poetry student named Jane (Felicity Jones). But then he is diagnosed with a motor-neuron disorder and given just two years to live. Hawking is advised that "the brain is not affected," which seems doubly cruel, as he and others rightly imagine his remarkable academic gifts will be imprisoned in an inert, dying shell. The doctor explains the horror: "Your thoughts won't change. It's just that no one will know what they are."
Well, those aren't indisputable facts, after all. Hawking goes on to live many years (72 and counting); finish his dissertation; marry Jane and start a family; divorce and marry again; guest-star on The Simpsons; and he never stops communicating thoughts large and small from his ever-nimble brain.
Marsh's film is as hagiographic as expected, and has been adapted from Jane's second, less-critical, account of her marriage, Travelling to Infinity, My Life With Stephen. But throughout the film, the inspirational nature of Hawking's life is tempered by the presence of Jane. She is as central a character as Hawking, one whose emotional, physical and professional life is deeply constrained by her husband's demands.
For a well-known story, with an admitted bias toward presenting both Hawking and Jane as strong characters who met, matched and bested life's challenges, Theory manages to feel more quality, small-scale BBC film than manipulative, heavily scored Hollywood heart-tugger. The two good, restrained actors playing out this marriage — with its trials both extraordinary (physically caring for your husband as one would an oversized toddler) and mundane ("it's all about you") — also help steer the story past the lachrymose pitfalls. Ultimately, Theory is quite cheerful and sunny — oh, there are clouds, but they quickly pass. It's not a bad movie, it's not a great movie, but you could do worse for a heartwarming true-life story about smart people, and a pair of lead performances likely to turn up during awards season.