Imagine a doctor breaking this news to you: “Your brain isn’t affected. Your thoughts will remain the same, it’s just that eventually no one will know what they are.”
Devastating. You will still be you, but very soon, you will be unable to communicate anything you are thinking to another person. You will be trapped inside your head.
Now imagine that your “unaffected brain” is one of the most intelligent brains in human history. You are way off the charts of statistical outliers. You are, potentially, the smartest person alive today; your name is routinely mentioned alongside names like Einstein and Newton. And within two years all of that amazing thinking ability will be locked up in a body that has no ability to communicate its thoughts.
This is the painful realization that lies at the heart of The Theory of Everything. The film is a biography of world renown theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking from the point of view of his first wife, Jane Hawking, but really it goes deeper. It asks us to contemplate the universe within as well as the one without. The universe is silent with its secrets, and the most qualified human to interpret those secrets for us battles daily with the ability to speak.
Yes, the film is a biography, but more than that it is about being trapped. Hawking’s groundbreaking ideas are trapped within his ALS-ravaged body. He hits terrible lows on his journey, but is always lifted up when some new ability liberates him. His wife, Jane, is trapped by her love for him. She commits early on to be his full partner, and that commitment becomes more and more difficult on her. The secrets of the universe are trapped somewhere inside mathematical equations that only a mind like Hawking’s can comprehend, and yet the physicist himself is trapped by the tyranny of his disease.
Eddie Redmayne is spectacular in the role of Professor Hawking. Redmayne helps us really feel the progression of Hawking’s life and his disease. Early on, he helps us see that glimmering and active young man Hawking was at the age of 21, overly brash in his mental superiority yet not in the condescending way we so often see in movies about geniuses. This portion is vital, because as his physical abilities deteriorate we can still see the young man and his brilliance become ever more trapped inside his ailing body. Less and less able to emote or even speak, Redmayne counts on our love for him early on. It works.
Felicity Jones is Jane, his vital link to the outside world. She plays the role with a quiet, determined strength that nevertheless allows us glimpses into the prison into which she trapped herself. Jane has her own dreams, and her dedication to her husband – albeit willing – presents its own trap as she tries to live her own life. Even as the tension rises, Jane’s gushing love for her husband always shines through.
This love story is told against the backdrop of something most theatergoers would see as decidedly dull – physics. Equations, graphs, and discussions of spacetime are a constant feature, but just as Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time seeks to explain complicated astrophysics to the layman, all these discussions of theoretical black holes and the mathematical nature of time provide a moving and exciting canvas for the love story to unfold.
Another theme that permeates the film is the tension between science and spirituality. Yet, just as Stephen the atheist and Jane the Christian find a way to make their partnership work, we are left feeling that maybe the grand unified theory can unify both of these two seemingly paradoxical pillars of cosmology. Hawking describes the study of cosmology as “a religion for atheists,” and each little thread of the film seems to tie the two fields closer together. Or maybe, paradoxically, those ties liberate both science and spirituality from their prison of exclusivity. Why be trapped studying one or the other? Much like the two pillars of physics, we should unify both.
Every situation we find ourselves in had an origin. As we live through our lives, we rarely notice just how profound each moment can be, but our life is a sum of each and every decision we have made. If Professor Hawking had never met Jane, it is quite possible that his illness would have prevented the world from the gifts his intellect has to offer. We have those moments too.
The Theory of Everything asks us to take a step back and examine what brought us to that point where we are today. Where are we trapped? And, since time has no beginning or end, it challenges us to escape our traps like radiation escaping a black hole. Even black holes can’t trap everything. We can swirl around in our own defeats, or we can burst through that which seeks to trap us and make Everything we can out of this Brief Time we are given.