The Theory of Everything is a “must see” but not a “rave.”

The true story of physicist Stephen Hawking is powerful and inspiring:  he has overcome gruesome physical obstacles and beat seemingly impossible odds to lead a productive and creative career as a physicist, while enjoying a rich personal life and having three children. And Eddie Redmayne’s characterization of Hawking, a man brutally robbed by illness of motor control and speech, is beyond belief great. The disease that felled Hawking as a young man in college is ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), Lou Gherig’s disease: at the time he was stricken he was told he had two years to live but he’s alive today and in his early 70’s (which made me wonder about the diagnosis although I’m sure he’s been tested and re-tested and they must know).

The acting is magnificent but the script doesn’t convey the intellectual dimensions of Hawking’s work well, and also shows Hawking as a one-man creator of contemporary physics as if nobody else did anything.  Science doesn’t work that way (while Hawking currently has more “name recognition” than any other contemporary physicist,brilliant physicists have won the Nobel Prize through the years, but not Hawking, though of course that’s just one gauge of significance).  In his youth, his fellow physics students at Cambridge, who must have been quite smart, are shown in the film as dummies when it comes to answering test questions that only Hawking can solve.  Whatever happened to them? one wonders.  Did they make contributions to science?  Did anybody, beside Stephen Hawking?

This, along with a lot of romance (from a funny looking Cambridge nerd through helpless in a wheelchair, he attracts women) and the constant references to Hawking’s fame without clarity about his ideas, make the film seem something of a puff piece.  This may be because it’s based upon his first wife’s book, Travelling to Infinity:  My Life with Stephen by Jane Wilde Hawking.

And it is possible to convey physics in a film more successfully than in The Theory of Everything.  A classic example is Madame Curie of 1943, with Greer Garson as Marie Curie and and Walter Pidgeon as her husband Pierre Curie — it gives a much better sense of what their physics meant, of how they did it, and of their intellectual activity and strength, as well as their family life and mutual love.  In recent theater, see also Photograph 51 about Rosalind Franklin’s role in the discovery of DNA, and Isaac’s Eye about an experiment by Newton.

But back to Redmayne’s characterization:  you see the distortions of  Hawking’s body caused by his disastrous neurological disease, the contracted fingers, his head falling sideways, and you see him peering up from this distorted position -– teasing, knowing, enjoying, thinking, catching on — whether to intimate interactions or cosmic mysteries.  I found the joie de vivre of this man suffering from such profound physical limitations totally believable and something to think about.

Redmayne’s Hawking ranks among some unforgettable dramatic impersonations in film including Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Julia Child, David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow and Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth.*  I expect he’ll win the Academy Award.  Stephen Hawking said on Facebook that watching Redmayne, he felt he was watching himself, and I believe it.

* Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (2005),  Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady (2011) and as Julia Child, Julie & Julia (2009), David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow, Good Night and Good Luck (2005), Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth, The Queen (2006).