Pop culture has its way of gentling great minds for the masses. To paraphrase Us magazine’s popular and frequently mocked feature: “Scientists — they’re just like us!” Those eggheads want, lust, love, and consume the same as any regular jerk. I imagine it’s one of the secrets of The Big Bang Theory‘s success: the characters may look to the stars, and even escape to them at times, but mostly they’re mired in grungy physical Earth. The nice thing about The Theory of Everything, which serves up a touching account of the love life of Stephen Hawking, is that Hawking’s cosmological curiosity seems to issue from the same place that likes booze and girls. We meet him, after all, as a gawky college student encountering his future wife Jane for the first time. Soon enough, Hawking will be as grounded as a human can be.
As Hawking, Eddie Redmayne stubbornly refuses to solicit our pity even as Hawking’s affliction, a motor neuron disease, erases his ability to walk and then to talk. Redmayne conveys some of the horror of a mind that faces being closed off from communication. But mainly he is astringent and witty, a brain too active to be distracted by mundane physicality for very long, because he has bigger fish to fry — you know, time and the origins of the universe. Redmayne’s skill at replicating the ravages of Hawking’s illness may threaten to overshadow Felicity Jones’ delicate work as Jane, but it shouldn’t; for a while, based as it is on the actual Jane’s memoir, the movie becomes about Jane and her inner life, and Jones puts across why Jane was drawn to Hawking’s intellectual gaeity and the toll his illness took on her despite her love.
Together, Hawking and Jane dramatize the Cartesian split: mind and body. A bitter irony of the movie is that Jane, pursuing her own academic career in literature, becomes essentially little more than a body: producing three children for Hawking, whose coital ability seems unaffected by his disease. The film sketches in Hawking’s relationship with his nurse, for whom he left Jane in 1995 after thirty years of marriage, but doesn’t tell us that he divorced the nurse, too, in 2006. The movie winds up saying that when you marry a scientist like Hawking, you take a back seat to what’s in his head. It’s a dynamic familiar from decades of absent-minded-professor entertainment, up to and including Sheldon and Amy on Big Bang Theory (where Hawking did a cameo, making Sheldon faint in shame over a math mistake). The Theory of Everything tries to soft-soap what should set it apart: the difficulties of being, and living with, a genius. The progressive, scene-stealing nature of Hawking’s illness cloaks the probability that he would be hard to live with even if he were able-bodied.
Still, the acting lifts the highly fictionalized story out of the realm of banality and bromide. Moment to moment, what we’re watching is the effort of two people to make things work, and this extends to the actors’ struggle to make the characters’ struggle fresh. Redmayne sneaks in the interesting sense that Hawking is spiritually and intellectually freed by his ailment — that he literally becomes a brain in a jar, a very fragile jar, and leaves the realities of dealing with his physicality to others. On the opposite end of the axis, Jones gives us a Jane who fears losing her mind, and though the movie short-shrifts Jane’s own intellect except for a scene or two of her jotting down notes, Jones makes sure we understand what it was like to be a woman in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, living in the shadow of an egghead titan who, liberal as he may have been in some areas, probably had no idea he was reducing his first love to a baby machine and unpaid nurse.