Love defies physics in ‘The Theory of Everything’

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“The Theory of Everything,” directed by James Marsh and written by Anthony McCarten, is based on Jane Hawking’s autobiography “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.” Against the backdrop of her husband, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s (Eddie Redmayne) academic endeavors, the film traces Jane (Felicity Jones) and Stephen’s relationship from the point of their meeting through their marriage — a marriage which is, of course, forever complicated when Stephen is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

As a partly biographical film, “The Theory of Everything” spends little time portraying the work behind Hawking’s fame. Science, physics and time are rather romantically portrayed as a professor’s assignment of nine “impossible” questions, a stroll through the dusty room in which an atom was first split, a potato versus a pea and the swirling of milk as it is poured into coffee. Symbolic though these scenes may be, they fail to depict the gritty, dirty work that is inherent in the development of world-changing theories.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Redmayne defended the focus of the film, attributing the lack of emphasis on science to the fact that the movie is not truly a biography of the physicist.

“It’s an investigation of love in extraordinary circumstances,” Redmayne said.

Despite a slight lingering disappointment in the lack of a fuller depiction of the physics discipline,  the star-crossed lovers’ romance that ensues is fulfillingly sweet, full of desire and also tenderly painful. Perhaps because the film is based on Jane’s autobiography, there is a surprising and much-welcome balance between the depictions of the two characters.

Though it is lauded generally as a film about Stephen Hawking, the movie’s gaze is frequently snatched away from the magnetic Stephen by Jane and her plotline. This is not a story of this one famous man’s home life but a story of two people negotiating their shared and separate lives. The audience is thus not directed to fall for the male lead — as is conventional in many romantic films — but to fall in love with Jane and Stephen together.

At the heart of this romance between the film and its audience are the actors themselves. Redmayne’s performance is remarkable, and not simply because Redmayne is a physically able actor taking on the role of a physically handicapped character. Separating Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking from the the idea of “disability” reveals the ease with which Redmayne manipulates his body across the many incarnations of the disease and typifies the ideal role of an actor — that he is primarily the skilled technician of his own body.

Redmayne spent four months preparing for the role by first meeting people suffering from ALS and working with a choreographer to determine which muscles Hawking was utilizing at different times. He also collected photographs of Hawking across his life in order to map out the physical changes caused by ALS so that he could learn to convey them through his own body.

“I’d love people to take away what I took away from the experience,” Redmayne said. “When you have that sentence given to you, it makes you look at time in a different way. Being able to live as Stephen has done, despite all the obstacles, squeezing everything out of everyday and living a full life — it’s a reminder of that.”

Contrasting Redmayne’s physically demanding role, Jones gives a subtly graceful performance as Jane. She is able to convey Jane’s silent frustrations with her life through the restraint in her every movement and expression throughout the film.

Together, the actors are able to capture the impossibilities that Hawkings faced in trying to maintain a “normal” marriage while navigating the physical boundaries of ALS. Rather than building itself around the intrusive disease, the film seems to theorize that if it were possible to trace a relationship, an existence back through time to its inception, the core of that relationship would be a single illuminating idea — that two people could find a way to live their love.

The “Theory of Everything” is playing at Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco.

Contact Anne Ferguson at [email protected].