'The Theory of Everything,' Explained

'The Theory of Everything'—Dir. James Marsh (Focus Features)

Theory of Everything
COURTESY FOCUS FEATURES

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones play Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde in "The Theory of Everything."

One simple, elegant equation that explains everything in the universe.

That’s what Stephen Hawking is after in “The Theory of Everything,” a feature film that inhabits both drama and biopic, both romance and realism. Hawking, known as much for his battle with ALS as for his groundbreaking work in physics and cosmology, defied countless expectations in his ongoing search for that equation, becoming an icon—both medical and academic—in the process. According to the cast and crew, however, Hawking’s untold stories are perhaps the ones most worthy of portrayal.

“I think of it as a triple helix,” writer Anthony McCarten said at a press conference in New York on Oct. 18. “There’s these three movies in one: the physics story, the love story, and then there’s the physical, medical story. And if they could be woven together, we would have a shot at doing something a little bit unprecedented.”

It’s a tall order, and one that made similarly unprecedented demands of the cast and crew. “That was a challenge for us all: to try and reckon with the nature of Stephen’s scientific achievements,” director James Marsh said. “To do so, you have to engage with the biggest questions that there are—the origins of the universe—and at a certain point you’re pondering these things in a hotel room on your own and you say, ‘Well, I’m gonna have a beer and listen to some pop music.’”

Those aren’t the only big questions “The Theory of Everything” investigates: after all, it was the love story of Jane Wilde and Stephen Hawking that first intrigued McCarten, and it was the unique emotionality of the narrative that allowed the cast opportunities to explore capabilities.

“What I loved about making this film, which I hadn’t experienced to the same extent with other projects, was this complete jumping-into a character,” Felicity Jones, who plays Hawking’s wife Jane Wilde, said. “It’s the most extraordinary experience when you let go of yourself.”

For Eddie Redmayne, who plays Hawking, many of the role’s particular demands entailed a new physicality and new methods of expression, especially after his character loses the ability to speak. “You take all of those colors [that] as human beings we normally have—physicality, voice, and all of those things, and…channel that energy into the little that you do have,” he said.

The cast worked extensively with the real-life Hawking family to facilitate Redmayne and Jones’s character research, Redmayne even recalling an instance on set when Jane Wilde herself styled his hair. “It was quite surreal, at moments,” Jones quipped.

But it was the tangible reality of the story and people they were portraying that both grounded and inspired Redmayne and Jones, particularly in the many emotionally fraught scenes of the film. “For both [Jane Wilde and Stephen Hawking] the emotional stakes were so high that the emotion…always came quite easily,” Jones said. “We realized that they had actually gone through this: they were in these profound situations.”

Marsh found that the most effective directorial decision to make in those situations was to simply step back and watch. “In a sense you just want to keep out of their way,” Marsh said. “I think the most rewarding aspect of this film was the way the actors worked with each other and off each other.”

“They should have a category for leading actors in a duet or something,” McCarten agreed. “That’s what these guys had, they had a chemistry and a magic that inspired each other.”

And that magic had to be maintained in the face of the unconventionalities and ups and downs of a relationship that was inevitably altered by Hawking’s diagnosis and the later stages of ALS. “I wanted [to tell] this very unusual love story, where A meets B, then A with the permission of B meets C, and B with the permission of A meets D,” McCarten said, joking about his use of equations. “And it’s still a love story that you can completely buy.”

An equation that explains everything? Perhaps not. Still, it’s one that produces a complicated and compelling portrait of a man who, along with his family, created, not accepted, a path that allowed him to keep moving through the fabric of the universe.

—Crimson staff writer Natalie T. Chang can be reached at natalie.chang@thecrimson.com.

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