The true story of how renowned English cosmologist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) met and fell in love with his wife Jane (Felicity Jones).

3

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Sensitive and respectful, The Theory of Everything is a love story dressed as a biopic of British physicist Stephen Hawking.  Director James Marsh (better known for his documentaries, including Man on Wire and Project Nim) used as source material the 2008 memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, written by Hawking’s first wife, Jane, and the film is shaded, generally to its benefit, by her perspective. As played by Felicity Jones, Jane Hawking emerges from the background, where characters of her ilk tend to linger in “great man” biopics, to claim her share of the story.

Even so, as with any film where an actor plays a well-known figure, the central fascination of The Theory of Everything is the transformation of Eddie Redmayne into Stephen Hawking, who as a young man was diagnosed with a degenerative nerve disease. We meet Hawking during that time, when he is on the brink of meeting Jane, completing his PhD at Oxford, and receiving a death sentence. The film begins with the lovely, God-fearing arts student and the wispy egghead in crooked glasses falling in love at first sight. She fumes over his cool rationality; he is charmed by her ability to quote just the right bit of poetry at just the right moment. She does it a lot.

The Hawking family sneers at Jane, with her Christian values and her love of Turner paintings (“They look to me like they’ve been left out in the rain,” replies Stephen’s father; Anthony McCarten’s script crackles with similarly English wit). It feels like several subplots were trimmed from The Theory of Everything, and an examination of the class dynamics in play between Stephen and Jane’s families is one of them. (How else to explain the fleeting presence of the great Emily Watson, who as Jane’s homespun mother is barely glimpsed in the film?) Stephen’s diagnosis presents a much greater obstacle to the couple: given two years to live, Stephen turns away from Jane; in a kind of saintly gesture, Jane refuses to leave, and the two marry.

That Stephen survives well past those two years (Hawking is now 72) receives no explanation. Marsh has a difficult enough problem trying to condense and simplify for a mass, movie-watching audience the ideas that made Hawking famous. A perfect theory of everything is Stephen’s ambition, which is to say a mathematical proof for the beginning of time, and a provable idea of how time might come to an end. No doubt much is lost in the translation, but Marsh does a serviceable job of illustrating, often using a food item, how Hawking’s theory of a black hole and space-time singularity, to name two examples, electrified his field. David Thewlis appears as one of Stephen’s professors, and Harry Lloyd is wonderful as a floppy-haired, smart-mouthed classmate whose devotion to Stephen is more durable than it first appears.

Stephen’s power to inspire devotion only grows, of course, with his fame. Jane’s saintly gesture turns into a lifelong commitment; Stephen’s deterioration is slow but near total, and Jane is responsible for his care as well as that of their three children. If he becomes more and more vulnerable physically, Stephen’s mind only sharpens, as does his sense of how incapacity affords him a certain power. Creamy, redheaded nurse Elaine (Maxine Peake) arrives to care for Stephen in the wake of a serious illness, and within a few scenes Stephen has run off with her, assuring Jane that Elaine will now provide for his every need, and perhaps relish the privilege.

By this point in the story, Stephen is communicating via computer, and Redmayne’s transformation into the gnarled genius is as complete as this story of Hawking’s life is lacking. What is lacks in substance Marsh eases with moments of grace: Stephen typing the lyrics of “Daisy Bell,” the favourite song of 2001’s Hal 9000, into his voice generator; Lloyd placing Redmayne’s withered body into the lap of a giant statue, for safekeeping, during a night of drunken celebration. Marsh’s constant, reverent attention to the small things saves this film from its tendency toward convention and foreground its astonishing lead performance. Hawking reportedly wept on seeing the film, calling it “broadly true.” That seems fair, and fair enough.