Biopic of renowned physicist both delights and frustrates

Stephen Hawking, the subject of the new biopic The Theory of Everything, is world-famous as the author of A Brief History of Time and other books that make theoretical physics more approachable for the general public. But he is equally renowned for living and working for more than 50 years though completely disabled with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)—Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a progressive neurological disorder that leaves victims’ brain functions completely unaffected but paralyzes them physically, effectively imprisoning them in their own bodies.

Directed by James Marsh (Shadow Dancer), The Theory of Everything is an unusual depiction of love and courage, as well as science. It traces the relationship between Hawking and his first wife, Jane, from their first meeting when both are graduate students at Cambridge, around the time when Hawking started to have the symptoms of what turned out to be ALS. Although the doctors tell Stephen he has two years to live (or perhaps because of this), Jane insists on marrying him.

But as their family grows (ALS doesn’t rob its sufferers of sexual function—as Stephen puts it, “It’s automatic”), we watch Jane’s tension grow as she finds herself with sole responsibility for her increasingly disabled husband and three small children. As different caregivers become part of the family, both Jane and Stephen develop feelings for other people and, surprisingly, Stephen is the one who exits the marriage first. Today, both he and Jane are married to other people, but they remain friends.

Time is a sub-theme of the movie, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. Not only does much of Hawking’s work in physics involve time (Did time have a beginning? Over his career Hawking has changed his mind), but the grim medical prognosis versus the reality of how much time he has left clearly influences the course of Jane’s and Stephen’s relationship. It also influences Hawking’s work; he has said that the prospect of an early death has urged him on to make several intellectual breakthroughs so that he is now regarded as the most brilliant theoretical physicist since Einstein.

The movie is both extraordinarily good and extremely unsatisfying at the same time.   Felicity Jones (The Invisible Woman) portrays Jane with great sensitivity, so we can empathize with Jane’s emotions; but as Stephen’s ALS progresses he is able to show less and less of his feelings. Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) gives a remarkable performance that captures both Hawking’s brilliance and his humor, as well as his clear-eyed appraisal of his situation (as when we see Stephen observing Jane’s growing fondness for the man who helps her care for him). This leaves the question of what keeps Stephen going despite the physical and emotional challenges. The movie tries to address that but does so in a way that doesn’t fully satisfy.

The devastation of ALS limits its victims’ interactions with the world, and we as onlookers yearn to better understand Hawking’s inner life. Unfortunately, at the end of The Theory of Everything, that understanding remains elusive.