The Theory of Everything

The movies love a tortured genius, and Stephen Hawking certainly fits the bill. The theoretical physicist made his name with his groundbreaking research into the ways of the universe. But he found global fame in part thanks to his motor neurone disease, which confined him to a wheelchair and turned him into an icon of perseverance. The Theory of Everything, a 2014 biopic based on his ex-wife Jane Hawking’s memoir, tells a good chunk of his (and her) life story. The film is moving and eye-opening, and it won Eddie Redmayne an Oscar for his remarkable impersonation of the scientist. But it has its critics...


Hawking was known for his discoveries and disease, but this biopic focuses on another aspect of his life: his marriage. Stephen and Jane love each other, but the unique pressures on their lives push them to form relationships with other people. When they finally divorce, they do so — in the film, at least — on friendly terms. Theirs is far from a typical Hollywood love affair.


At the film’s beginning, Hawking is a brilliant (if lazy) undergraduate at Cambridge. His intellect is established in scenes in which we see him furiously scribbling equations on a blackboard. While celebrating his achievements, the film also shows how they cast a shadow over Jane, who struggles to find the time to write her own thesis on Spanish poetry. Genius, as always, comes at a price.


Hawking came up with pioneering theories about black holes and the Big Bang. The film presents some of his ideas in simplified ways, using visual analogies like cream swirling in coffee. It contrasts his atheism and rationalism with his wife’s Christian faith. The script is also full of geeky dialogue: early on, Stephen tells Jane all about the phosphorescence of clothing detergent.


Early on in the film, Hawking is told that his thoughts will not be affected by his disease, but that eventually no one will know what they are. He goes on to lose his voice, but by that time science can provide him with a voice synthesiser. As well as tracking the communication breakdown in the Hawkings’ marriage, the movie depicts the physicist’s literal struggles with speech, often humorously.


The biopic is based on Jane’s memoir, but it deviates from the book in several ways. It rejigs the order of events in the Hawkings’ relationship and invents some new ones for dramatic effect. Critics have argued that Stephen is more sympathetic in the film than in the memoir (although the physicist did describe the movie as “broadly true”). Then again, cinema often play with the truth.