The Theory of Everything, a tale essentially about living with physicist Stephen Hawking, being married to him, and dealing with his diagnosis with a motor neuron disease, is based on the book written by his first wife, Jane. The film highlights their meeting, marriage, and ultimate divorce with an ending note on where the two are today, or, moreover, that Jane has remarried, while she and Stephen are still friends.
As a film, it succeeds in only the most basic of ways. It offers a plot. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is based on Jane’s memory of the marriage, and for the most part, her feelings are crystal clear, even when they appear selfish and overly hard to watch. Being based on a true story from the specific viewpoint of a person gives it certain leeways that do not exist for other films. That being said, apart from allowances for Jane’s feelings, this film serves as a mouthpiece for pity. As such, it shows us why people with disabilities should accept less in a relationship; no matter how much you love them, their inability to be competent adults will saddle their able-bodied companion with another child of responsibility. The able-bodied person will have no sense of freedom from the “burden” that is their disabled spouse. Likewise, it tells able-bodied companions that love just isn’t enough, especially when someone is not physically “normal.”
Portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, Hawking, pre-disability, appears arrogantly intelligent, and awkward in the basic way that a good number of scientists are. We step into Hawking’s life upon his first meeting with Jane. At this point, he already is showing symptoms of his disability, but in the film they come across incredibly subtle. His hand cramps, he fumbles and drops a pencil, he has a spasm and spills a cup on his desk. Eventually, he trips and falls, after having only taken Jane on 2-3 dates (if you count dining with his family as a date), and once he does, his disability takes a drastic change, turning the mobile man into the Hawking we are more familiar with today.
Felicity Jones takes on the role of martyr and savior, Jane Wilde Hawking. While not a martyr in the traditional sense, from the moment Wilde makes the decision early in her relationship with Hawking, especially after learning he has two years to live, she becomes overwhelmed with his disability. Sexually they obviously get along, as she bears him three children, but beyond that it is clear that she views him as a man-baby or a fourth child. She is overworked, feels under-appreciated, and to be quite honest, she just comes off as tired. She only ever seems to advocate for Hawking’s life once, and it comes off as her duty and a responsibility to him, rather than a deep-seated need to keep her husband in her marriage, with her. Much like a mother would fight to save her child’s life, Jane attempted to save her appendage that had become Stephen, as his life as a scientist, rather than a lover, husband, father, and man, was too valued to be lost.
A great opportunity is lost in explaining Hawking’s life’s work by pigeonholing it to his lack of belief in God. The majority of scenes that deal with Hawking’s work focus on religion, due to the fact that Jane is a devout Christian. In actuality, very little of his work has anything to do with religion, at least in the sense that it appeared in the film. Perhaps the bigger problem is the implication that Hawking was given his PhD at Cambridge because his professors thought he was dying. It was clear that with the large amount of problems with his work, it would have needed to be revised, but as he was ill and was seen as a shell of what he formerly was, it seemed right to give him something he eventually would have earned anyway. Although, given the fact that he is still alive, it’s clear he would have had time to earn it the appropriate way — like everyone else.
Instead of focusing on all of the positive aspects of Hawking’s career, we see the toll that his disability has taken on his wife and his family. We are forced to watch Jane’s frustration at helping Stephen do basic tasks and we are forced to see Stephen slip from an able-bodied world into one of disability, where he longs to be the person he once was. Scenes where Stephen is attempting to feed himself and he looks longingly at the working limbs of the family around him, as they eat and drink, oblivious to his struggle, is not only pity-inducing, it’s an obvious attempt at Oscar baiting. Furthermore, scenes where Hawking’s family question his ability to have children and whether Jane is cheating on him, while perhaps the most poignantly realistic part of the film, is lost to pacing. This is because the focal point of the scene becomes Jane’s self-righteousness, and her feelings for Jonathan, not Stephen.
At the end of the day, The Theory of Everything is nothing new. We have seen films about how able-bodied people deal with people that have disabilities, and how it affects them. Like many of those movies, Hawking is made a prop in a film about his life. Jane’s frustration at the need for a normal life for her and her children (she states how they are not a “normal” family) is evident in the beginning, but when choir director and Jane’s future husband, Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), shows up, it becomes plainly clear, at least in the film, that the problems with the Hawking union have more to do with Hawking’s inability to be a physically active part of their relationship.
In this way, this film is as dangerous as many other films about disability, even those that attempt to do some good. Like The Sessions which tells us that disabled people should be relegated to paying for sex, The Theory of Everything tells us that disabled people are not equal parts of a relationship. They are more trouble than they are worth. The film tells us that if you are disabled, you should take what you can get, being thankful you got anything at all. Finally, it tells people with disabilities that if they truly love someone they will release their wife/husband or lover, because they deserve a chance at true happiness – something a “broken person with a disability” could never give.