British science is having a cinematic moment, with The Theory of Everything now and The Imitation Game soon. Yet neither film has much science in it. These accounts of Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing, respectively, are engaging and well-crafted but modeled all too faithfully on old-school romantic dramas.
In the movie universe, scientific breakthroughs — even when they help defeat the Nazis, as Turing's did — must be less important than love. Which, come to think of it, is also the corn-belt communique beamed back from Interstellar, a film that relies on the cosmological savvy of Kip Thorne, one of Hawking's closest colleagues.
Thorne appears briefly in The Theory of Everything, which introduces several of Hawking's scientific peers but focuses on a single companion: the one who wrote the book from which co-producer Anthony McCarten's script is derived.
She's Jane Hawking, nee Wilde, as embodied by the ideally named Felicity Jones. Pretty and vivacious, yet not so delicate as she appears, Jane is irresistible to the young Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) when he spots her at a party. This is one of many incidents depicted in the film that didn't exactly happen. Every time an everyday event can be transformed into a movie moment, McCarten and director James Marsh (Man on Wire) go for it.
In broad outline, the story they tell is true. Hawking, a brilliant Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge, is distracted and disorganized, but becomes studiously focused on Jane. He's diagnosed with a motor neuron disease related to ALS soon after they meet, but she marries him anyway. Soon she has three young children and a husband whose body is withering.
The couple struggles medically and financially, but he retains his intellect and wit and she her radiance and good humor. She even learns enough of his work to illustrate the conflict between quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity — using peas and potatoes — to Jonathan (Charlie Cox), a choirmaster who becomes an intimate family friend.
Stephen wins fame as the author of A Brief History of Time, although the equation that will unify all astrophysics remains elusive. (Marsh embodies the universe in a swirling cup, quoting not Einstein but Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her.) Then pneumonia — whose operatic onset is another fictionalized episode — leads to a tracheotomy, and further loss of ability to communicate.
Ultimately, Jane becomes very close to Jonathan, while Stephen does the same with a therapist (Maxine Peake). And so a 25-year marriage ends, a rupture that may have been a little stormier in actuality than in this sanitized telling. Although it probably is hard to get into a shouting match with a husband who speaks through a voice synthesizer.
Devolving from a man who seems a bit clumsy to one who can barely move at all, Redmayne gives an impressive physical performance. It recalls Daniel Day Lewis' in My Left Foot — minus the rage. There's little acrimony in The Theory of Everything, which may reflect Hawking's actual outlook or just the movie's puppyish desire to please.
As gentle and saintly as Jennifer Connelly's character in A Beautiful Mind, Jones' Jane is immensely appealing if a bit unbelievable. And since in movies the essence of female virtue is cuteness, Jane barely ages over three decades.
Perhaps she took a rejuvenating whirl through the wayback machine that, in one of the clunkier touches, rewinds the story at the movie's end. Certainly it feels as if the script did, yielding the time anomaly of a 2014 film that seems to have been written when its 72-year-old protagonist was still in short pants.