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Movie Review

What if there was one master equation that explained, well, everything? For genius Cambridge doctoral candidate Stephen Hawking, the dogged pursuit of such an equation occupies his every waking moment.

Until, that is, Stephen's world of theoretical physics gets rocked by something that's not theoretical in the least: a pretty young woman named Jane Wilde.

And then it's rocked again.

No sooner has the young couple's love begun to blossom than Stephen is stricken with a terrible disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, which is also called Lou Gehrig's disease. After a spinal tap, Stephen's doctor delivers the somber prognosis: a life expectancy of just two years, most of which will be consumed by the devastating ravages of the disease as Stephen inexorably loses control of all his muscle functions.

In the wake of that ominous diagnosis, he tells Jane simply, "Go." But she'll hear none of that. Not from Stephen, nor from her father, who warns her, "The weight of science is against you. And this will not be a fight, Jane. This is going to be a very heavy defeat, for all of us."

"I don't look like a terribly strong person," Jane replies fiercely. "But I love him, and he loves me. We're going to fight this illness together."

And so they do, getting married soon after.

As Stephen's condition worsens, Jane attends to his every need … and manages to raise the couple's three children to boot.

But the burden of such heroic caretaking takes its inevitable toll on Jane, and her resolve to "fight this illness together" begins to buckle—especially as she begins to develop a friendship with her choir director at church, a soft-spoken, lonely widower named Jonathan.

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Positive Elements

The Theory of Everything is, in some significant ways, a deeply inspirational story. As Stephen Hawking slips ever deeper into the awful grip of ALS, he's determined to keep working, keep going, keep thinking. His first question when his doctor describes the disease is how it will affect his mind. "What about the brain?" he asks, and he learns that his mind will be one of the few things that's not affected by the affliction. And apart from a fit of anger right after his diagnosis, Stephen never sees himself as a victim who should be treated with pity.

The Theory of Everything powerfully illustrates the dignity and value of a life, even (especially) one that's so devastatingly impacted by disease. At a critical juncture when Stephen is in a coma, the doctors explain to Jane that they'll have to do a tracheotomy for him to be able to breathe, which means he'll never be able to speak again. They try to convince her that his quality of life will be degraded so much that it might be better just to pull the ventilator and let him die. But Jane fiercely rejects that notion and fights to keep her husband alive. Indeed, she tenderly and sacrificially serves his every need for decades.

After the surgery, Stephen learns to use first a letter board to communicate, then an ingenious computer system that enables him to write words and sentences that it then pronounces. (He uses the machine to write his 1988 book, A Brief History of Time.)

Spiritual Content

Stephen and Jane are no more than a couple of minutes into their first conversation when the subject of God comes up. And it turns out that the two are on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of what they believe spiritually. Stephen quips that he's a cosmologist. When Jane asks what that means, he replies, "It's a kind of religion for intelligent atheists." Stephen's mildly dismayed that Jane is a member of the Church of England, but he more or less laughs it off.

As the film progresses, Stephen's beliefs get fleshed out more fully. He says, "I have a slight problem with the whole celestial dictator premise." He's dismissive of Einstein's famous statement, "God doesn't play dice with the universe." Au contraire, Stephen replies, "He not only plays with dice, he throws them where you can't find them." Elsewhere he says that a physicist can't allow his work to be muddled by belief in a supernatural creator.

At one point Stephen thinks he's figured out an equation indicating that time had a definite beginning. But if there was a beginning, both Jane and Jonathan say, that opens the door for the idea of creation and of a creator God. Jane quotes from Genesis 1 as the couple looks at an expanse of stars in the night sky. She's thrilled when Stephen seemingly bends a fraction in his unbelief by talking in his book about knowing "the mind of God."

Stephen ultimately amends his beliefs about the universe to say that there is no beginning, that the universe has always existed. It's a statement, Jonathan rightly surmises, that demands "the death of God."

Near the conclusion, Stephen is responding to pre-submitted questions from an audience in America. One person asks, "You have said that you do not believe in God. Do you have a philosophy of life that helps you?" Stephen says that we're just advanced primates circling a minor star in a backwater part of the universe. He says that just as the universe has no boundaries, so human beings should not submit to any constraints either. "And there should be no boundaries to human endeavor." Then he adds his famous statement, "Where there is life, there is hope."

Sexual Content

Stephen and Jane kiss several times. They're also shown (in pajamas) in bed together. A couple of kissing scenes are followed by the arrival of a baby. When asked how ALS affects his sex life, Stephen smiles and says that it's not affected because "it's automatic." One of his friends jokes, "What if the secret of the universe has something to do with sex?"

But both Stephen and Jane have affairs and they eventually split over outside attractions. Jane's relationship with Jonathan isn't something she rushes into, but rather it happens gradually over time. Jonathan becomes a close family friend and even an unofficial caretaker for Stephen. And he increasingly acts as a surrogate father for the Hawkings' three children. For Jane it is significant that he believes in God while Stephen does not, something she has always longed for.

It's not made clear when Jane's relationship with Jonathan moves from emotional to physical. Still, Stephen's mother accuses Jane of getting pregnant with her third child by Jonathan. It's a claim she vehemently denies, but the fact that Jonathan overhears her and stomps out of the house suggests that the child could very well be his. When Stephen takes a turn for the worse, Jane breaks off all contact with Jonathan. Then she "returns" to him after Stephen himself leaves her for a caretaker named Elaine.

Stephen has a subscription to Penthouse magazine, and one scene shows Elaine flipping its pages for him to see; the camera glimpses a topless woman lying on her stomach.

Violent Content

Before he's told he has ALS, Stephen falls and hits his head hard on sidewalk, cutting his face. After his diagnosis, he throws and breaks things in frustration. We see a needle being inserted into his back for the spinal tap. We watch a surgeon place a scalpel on his throat for the tracheotomy. He nearly chokes to death as Jane frantically pounds on his back.

Crude or Profane Language

Two or three uses of "d--n" and "d--mit." Somebody's told to "sod off." One or two misuses of God's name.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Wine and beer show up at meals and in pubs throughout the film. Jonathan and Stephen drink beer in a church.

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

It's a rare thing for a movie to feel incredibly inspiring and yet deeply depressing all at once.

You can't help but be moved by Stephen Hawking's valiant struggle against the terrible toll ALS takes on him (by way of actor Eddie Redmayne's remarkable, Oscar-worthy portrayal of the man's physical suffering). Even as Stephen's body wastes away, his mind is active and alert, utterly given to the questions about the universe and life that transfix him.

Equally inspiring, at least for a time, is Jane Hawking's care for her husband. For years, she's a model of perseverance and love, compassionately laying down virtually everything in her life to serve her husband's vast needs.

But despite the very best of intentions, both Jane and Stephen stray from their marriage vows. The film seeks to help us understand how such an outcome might occur, and neither is portrayed as a villain or a cheater. Instead, they're just two people whose ability to cope with Stephen's illness together reaches the breaking point.

I realize, of course, that that's what happened in real life. It's not a Hollywood ending; there's no happily ever after here. And that actually increases my feeling of deep sadness that Jane's determination to serve Stephen throughout his life ultimately wasn't enough to make their marriage work. In the end, she does indeed face "a very heavy defeat," just as her father predicted, if not the particular defeat he had in mind.

Even more depressing, I'd suggest, are the deeper implications of Professor Hawking's life philosophy. On the surface, his saying, "While there is life, there is hope," might seem powerfully motivating. And on one level it is: While we still have breath, we can always hope for the best outcomes in the struggles we all face.

But digging under the skin a bit, in the way that Stephen's beliefs and his unbelief ask us to, we find that it also confronts us with this fierce fiction: that when life ends, there is no hope. That, of course, is consistent with Hawking's atheistic beliefs. And, of course, it doesn't come close to lining up with the hope God so freely gives us. Stephen's refusal to welcome God into his cosmological world leaves us with the dire dogma that we're nothing but smart monkeys circling an insignificant star. There's no meaning in either our faithfulness or our betrayals. Our success or suffering. Dying from or living with ALS.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults

Credits

Rating

PG-13

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking; Felicity Jones as Jane Wilde Hawking; Charlie Cox as Jonathan Hellyer Jones; Emily Watson as Beryl Wilde; Guy Oliver-Watts as George Wilde; Simon McBurney as Frank Hawking; Lucy Chappell as Mary Hawking; Maxine Peake as Elaine

Director

James Marsh ( )

Distributor

Focus Features

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

November 7, 2014

On Video

February 17, 2015

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Adam R. Holz

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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