At the movies, this is Science Friday. Christopher Nolan's Interstellar and the Disney animated feature Big Hero 6 will battle for weekend box-office domination with tales about scientists of the near future trying to save the Earth by flying into wormholes and other astral phenomena. But those films are the merest, or coolest, fantasies. In limited release is The Theory of Everything, describing the extraordinary life, cosmological breakthroughs and complicated marriage of Stephen Hawking.
The real Hawking is a ghostly presence in the Black Hole space chase of Interstellar, whose science advisor and executive producer Kip Thorne is a longtime Hawking colleague. And the kids in Big Hero 6 are all students at San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, a nod to Caltech, where Thorne taught and Hawking was a visiting professor. The Theory of Everything is not science fiction; it really has very little science, since few viewers would sit as still as Hawking for a lecture on relativity and quantum mechanics. Instead, it's a domestic drama that uses Hawking's peculiar fame to provide a thoughtful, plangent example of the Oscar Wannabe genre.
To compete successfully for major Academy Awards, a movie should be a true-life portrait of an exceptional man — sorry, ladies — who struggles against impossible odds in a noble quest. It’s a narrow genre that studios ignore the rest of the year in pursuit of fantasy-film box-office billions, but it often pays off in statuettes for Best Picture (A Beautiful Mind, The King’s Speech, Argo, 12 Years a Slave) and Best Actor (Sean Penn for Milk, Colin Firth for The King’s Speech, Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln, Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club).
This month, just under the wire for the critics-groups' prizes, the Great Man Theory flourishes in two bio-pics about brilliant Cambridge mathematicians with phenomenal achievements despite physical or social impediments. In The Imitation Game, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) helps win World War II by breaking Germany’s Enigma code but suffers because he is gay at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain. That film opens Nov. 28, and will earn awards galore for Cumberbatch's exceptional performance. For now, here's The Theory of Everything.
Struck by motor neuron disease at 23 and given just two years to live, Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) has survived and thrived for another half century, due in large part to the loving care of his wife Jane (Felicity Jones). Directed by James Marsh and written by Anthony McCarten from Jane’s 2007 memoir, the film both adheres to and gently upends the conventions of the Great Man genre.
For a movie about the author of A Brief History of Time, this is a studiously chronological retelling of Stephen and Jane’s 30-year marriage. Theory finds its saving nuances in the story of a vigorous young man whose disease turns him into his wife’s invalid child. Bodily degeneration is one scientific fact Stephen ignores with a mulish cheerfulness, even as he takes for granted Jane’s delaying of her own scholarly goals in order to tend and fend for him. He can grasp the complexities of the cosmos more easily than he can Jane’s need for upright male friendship with her choirmaster Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox). And as Stephen’s view of the universe evolves, so does his take on the immutability of marriage. A pretty nurse (Maxine Peake) can have that effect on a theory.
Memoirs by ex-spouses tend to play up the grievance factor; they are often a settling of scores — the other party might have gotten the house, but the writer controls the story. Jane Hawking's story might be boiled down to this: "I gave up my career to help my husband through his illness for decades. Then he left me for his nurse." (He married Elaine; Jane married Jonathan.) Jane, who was studying medieval Spanish poetry when she met Stephen at Oxford, did eventually get her Ph.D., without being able to make productive use of her degree. "It hasn't led to a career, of course," she told The Guardian in 2004, "although I have done some sixth form teaching, and some university teaching, and in a sense the frustration is greater now than it ever was because I feel I have had a great deal to offer but I have nowhere now to go."
Given all this, the movie is almost spectacularly even-handed. Renouncing the principles of melodrama, it describes a joining of, and then a conflict between, Good and Good. Before their marriage, when his disease has begun to debilitate Stephen, Jane avers, "We're going to fight this illness together. All of us." Their arguments are more likely to be over able agnosticism (his) vs. Christian belief (hers) than on the heroic drudgery they both endure. If there is naivety, it's Stephen's. When he says, "We're just a normal family," she needs to correct him: "We're not a normal family." She's right: they were an extraordinary family.
Marsh, who won an Oscar for his documentary Man on Wire, overdoes the visual fireworks. To prepare viewers for the horror of his subject's immobility, he shows Stephen bicycle-riding, playing pinball, serving as cox on the university rowing team. The camera is every bit as acrobatic: it whirls, indulges in extreme soft-focus, distorts Stephen's vision through a wide-angle lens. By insisting that his movie will move, dammit, Marsh gives the impression of not trusting his material.
Yet he’s attentive to the telling domestic details that suggest the Hawkings were a real, plausible couple. And he lets his actors breathe inside their characters. Redmayne, himself a Cambridge grad, transcends the eerie physical impersonation; he splendidly reveals both Stephen’s grand resolve and his peculiar blind spots. But this is finally Jane's story, and The Theory of Everything gives Jones (an Oxford grad) the chance to take control of its emotional center. She seizes it with spectacular subtlety, and helps make Jane the most fully realized human character in any of this weekend's Science Project movies. Jones proves that behind this Great Man movie is a woman — an actress — who’s every bit her man’s equal.