With the rise of the controversial ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and the university’s debated policies concerning disabled students, “The Theory of Everything” comes just in time to take part in these ongoing conversations.
Based on his first wife Jane Hawking’s 2004 memoir, the movie chronicles the overlapping personal and professional lives of the famous physicist Stephen Hawking and Jane, as well as the progression of his debilitating disease.
The film does not try to pick apart Stephen’s life and confine it to one perspective. Instead, screenwriter and producer Anthony McCarten sought to write a story that would do justice to the Hawkings and the complexity of their situation.
“I knew that it ought to be a three-stranded story that would evenly deal with the science, the struggle against ALS and this one-of-a-kind love story,” McCarten said. “I wanted equal balance between Stephen’s story and Jane’s story, so that it was just as much about the carer as the cared.”
Eddie Redmayne, who came to American audience’s attention in his role as Marius in “Les Misérables,” plays Stephen Hawking and has an equal appreciation for the movie’s complexities.
“I read the script thinking it was going to be a biopic, and I just found it a mesmerizing analysis of love in all its guises. The youthful love — the first love — but also the love of subject matter, of family. I describe it as the boundaries of love as well, the failings of love,” Redmayne said.
These rich themes are intensified by the ever-present effects of Stephen’s motor neuron disease. In modern pop culture, he is known as much for his revolutionary scientific theories as for his robotic voice, paralyzed body and high-tech armchair.
Centering a movie on such a distinctive character was not without its challenges. Although this constrained communication was a setback at first, McCarten saw the reward in portraying this one-of-a-kind figure.
“It was challenging to write, but exciting to write, because it’s working with silences. It’s dealing with the unsaid, and it placed a huge challenge on the actors and the director. They had to convey the freight of so much emotion without any language, which for the writer and the actor is the number one tool in the toolbox. And we had to take that away. That was exciting,” he said.
Beyond McCarten’s obstacle of silence, Redmayne was tasked with months of researching the debilitating effects of ALS in order to portray it accurately on screen.
“The day after I was cast, I went to an ALS clinic in London, and I met with a specialist there. She educated me on the disease, but then also introduced me to 30 to 40 people who were suffering from the disease at various different stages and their families. They were incredibly generous, some of them allowing me to go to their homes to really see the emotional impact as well as the physical impact of the disease,” Redmayne said.
Redmayne also worked with a dancer to direct and train his muscle movements. Learning the intricate body language of those suffering from the disease was hard enough, but it became even more of a challenge when he had to accurately depict the severity and progression of the disease over a long time span.
“As the disease takes hold, all the facilities that we have of gesture and of tone of voice and of energy, all of those things get channeled into the few muscles that he does have left. [Stephen] uses these muscles that I have never used before, and you have to learn to activate them to find that expression,” Redmayne said.
While Hawking’s disease may be the axis around which the other conflicts in the movie revolve, those themes are no less crucial to the heart of the story. The story is fueled by the love between Stephen and Jane that persists years after he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease. But instead of warping the film into a sappy love story, McCarten strove to preserve the reality of the situation.
“[Jane] never asked me to soften the drama or whitewash what had happened. I was grateful for that because I thought that it was important that if we were to show their bravery, we had to show the tough decisions they had to make,” McCarten said.
Wrapped up in these moments of passion and turbulence is an unending quest for knowledge and the relationship between science and religion.
“What I found most riveting is the idea of this world of great science. That they will present a paper in Cambridge that will then be reacted to by the presentation of a paper in Russia that is then responded to by a paper at MIT. This huge gigantic chess game is played across the world. It’s a nebulous thing; it’s something that’s always moving and changing,” Redmayne said.
Stephen’s personal opinion concerning religion is equally fluid, and this debate is allowed to develop through the characterization of him and his wife.
“It was such a wonderful gift in the story that Jane and Stephen represent two polar opposite views on God. This debate is going on in society at quite a vocal level at high volume. Jane is a church-going, God-loving Anglican, and Stephen is either an atheist or an agnostic depending on what day of the week it is,” McCarten said. “It’s hard to pin him down as to where he is. He doesn’t really want to be dragged into the God debate. But his idea has almost obliged him to address that.”
“The Theory of Everything” pulls back the curtain on the multidimensional human living behind the image of the great Stephen Hawking. It blazes with the emotional shock of marital relations, an incapacitating disease and an unwavering passion for unlocking the great mysteries of the universe.
“I saw Stephen just before the screening, and I told [him] I was very nervous. He took a while to type out a sentence, and then he said in his voice, ‘I will let you know what I think, good or otherwise,’” Redmayne said of the film’s reception.
With widespread appraisal and a virtually unquestionable Oscar nomination on the way, Redmayne has indeed done Hawking’s reputation justice, and it seems that his career has at last exploded to the status of a star.