Stephen Hawking: Love and genius in “The Theory of Everything”

"The Theory of Everything" premieres this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center.

Courtesy of Focus Features

English cosmologist Stephen Hawking, author of the best-selling book A Brief History of Time, is considered by many to be the most brilliant physicist since Albert Einstein. James Marsh’s film, The Theory of Everything, which plays this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, portrays Mr. Hawking less through his complex theories than his struggle with motor neurone disease and his 25-year marriage to Jane Wilde.

The Theory of Everything offers viewers an unusual and richly satisfying subject for a love story. The film has earned Oscar nominations for Eddie Redmayne, who plays Hawking, and Felicity Jones, who plays his wife Jane, along with a Best Picture nod. Based on Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, the memoir by Ms. Wilde, the movie explores the impact of Mr. Hawking’s struggle with a paralyzing disease that doctors predicted would kill him in two years. Viewers meet Mr. Hawking before the onset of motor neurone disease, a form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease, when he is a 21-year-old graduate student at Cambridge University.

He meets and falls in love with his future wife in those early 1960s days, and once the disease manifests itself, tries to end the budding relationship. Jane, however, is determined to commit herself to this brilliant man, who in many ways is her opposite. A graduate student in foreign languages, she is an active member of the Church of England, while Stephen, with characteristically wry humor, says he has “a slight problem with the whole celestial dictator premise.” The doctors’ prediction of a death sentence proves wrong — Mr. Hawking is now 73 years old — and the couple marry and have three children. Ms. Jones creates a far subtler portrait of Jane than the usual cinematic, self-sacrificing wife.

With prosthetic teeth and ears and a 15-pound weight loss, Mr. Redmayne’s remarkable depiction of Stephen’s growing physical disability employs a contorted wrist, drooping head, stooped posture, pigeon toes and an unruly mop of hair that transform the actor. Mr. Redmayne kept a chart of Stephen’s debilitative progress and spent time with ALS patients. Equally compelling is Ms. Jones’ portrait of Jane, who struggles with her husband’s illness in ways that are as heroic as Mr. Redmayne’s. As hard as the two work to sustain their relationship, the marriage ends after 25 years. Jane finds emotional support from widowed choirmaster Charlie Cox (Jonathan Hellyer Jones). Emily Watson appears in a cameo as Jane’s mother Beryl. After a life-threatening bout with pneumonia, Stephen finds romance with his nurse Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) whom he eventually marries.

While a fuller explication of Stephen’s theories would have been a welcome addition to The Theory of Everything, the movie remains a rich and rewarding portrait of a marriage that goes well beyond most Hollywood romances.

The Theory of Everything, Thursday, Jan. 22, and Sunday, Jan. 25, 7:30 pm; Friday, Jan. 23, 4 pm. For tickets and information visit