The Theory of Everything — review

Winner: British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for Best Adapted Screenplay

Screenplay by Anthony McCarten.

The Theory of Everything isn’t just itself a theory, but the story of this theory. It’s both the story of how Stephen Hawking proposed the basis for it, and how he solved it. And in doing so, it also works as an audio-visual data feed that provides us with everything we need to know to solve it ourselves. Because the theory of everything is the simplest thing there is. But it’s clever – we don’t realise what it is until the very moment Hawking does, and in that moment, there’s no need for the story to continue. And that’s what makes The Theory of Everything such an accessible story. It reaches out to include you to the point that you’re able to realise what the solution is. And that’s very much what happens to Hawking through the narrative. What happened and is happening to him happens to you. But as it occurred in his mind over several decades, the process is contracted here into about two and a half hours. Which is precisely what he needed in the first place.

At Cambridge University, Hawking realises that a black hole is a star reverting to the state at the beginning of its life. Its singularity pulls in space/time, which literally reverses time. Meaning that if he can reverse time, he can simulate the conditions at the beginning of time, which will give him the theory of everything. And that means there’s a lot of physics in it, which it manages to make understandable to the general audience without diluting it or making it inaccurate. None of the formulas are altered to be simple, but at the same time, they’re presented in such a way so that you can understand the end point of it even if you don’t know how it creates that end point. As it happens, the end point of the story is the most interesting thing about it, because that’s when The Theory of Everything transcends itself.

Up until the last few minutes, what you believe you’ve been seeing is a love story between four people and the unlikely circumstances that bring them together. Those circumstances aren’t unrealistic, and the development of it seems as if the process of their relationships just are, rather than being written to go in a certain direction. It’s the story of, statistically, the most intelligent person, but adapted from a version of that story written by the other half of it. So there are no antagonists. None of the characters are ever presented in such a way to make the story more sensational, and everything they do feels as circumstantial as one can only expect was the case. Even Hawking’s motor neurone disease also isn’t an antagonist. I’ve seen several reviews describe it as such, but what I took from it was that it’s almost the hero of the story – without it, these four people would never have met, their families would have never been started and the inspirational story would never have been able to be told. In most disability dramas, the disability is always played-up as being the enemy, which only makes the character being affected by it seem like some sort of soldier for overcoming it. Here, because this is based on a real account, the disability is just there. Hawking always feels like a real person. When he experiences humour and sadness, it’s for the reasons we all do. At no point does he become symbiotic with the disease. And that makes the actual story far more interesting, because it’s about these people, presented equally as realistically as Hawking himself. His portrayal is the basis for the portrayal of the other characters.

Of course, Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor at this year’s BAFTAs, and he definitely deserved it. Right up until the end, I forgot that I was watching a biopic, and felt as if The Theory of Everything was a documentary. That’s partially because Hawking provides his own synthetic voice, but mainly because Redmayne transformed himself so completely, having studied Hawking for four months, and working with doctors and choreographers to get his “look” right. Without giving away a potential spoiler, the best scene by far involves a pen. That was the moment at which Redmayne won me over. The way he performed the scene was so internalised, and controlled, that it made the philosophical implications of it work.

There was a theory proposed for how one might invent a working light-speed engine. The theory went along the lines of contracting space behind itself in order to effectively transport it faster than light. This theory never appears in The Theory of Everything because it would be too anachronistic. But it’s how I contextualised the final sequence, in-which Hawking looks at his family from a distance and has flashbacks in reverse order to the moment of him meeting Jane Wilde. His proposal was to reverse time to simulate the conditions at the beginning of the universe and find his Theory of Everything. In that moment, he realised – and I realised this as well – that this was it. He’d had to live all those years to give himself enough time to work with in his experiment. He’d simply had to overcome these challenges in order to earn the answer. Without the disease, he might not have discovered what it is. Looking at the results of his illness, which brought together the four leads, he determines that he’d made that family. The result of his difficulty was love. Throughout those flashbacks, love was apparent. The one constant throughout his life has been love. And now he’s seeing it. He’s earned enough time to compress it and understand its basis, in the same way that he founded his theory on something he observed in a scene that made his eye significant visually. Just like the wheelchair wheels, and the way he moves in a circle, and the spiral staircase, and the shape of the fireworks, and the wheels of the bicycles he rides – everything has come full circle. The black hole he’s been studying is like these circles apparent through his life, which are in turn part of a greater experience that concludes when he realises what it is. Love. Love’s been pulling these things together, and it’s what’s got him to that situation.

It’s love. The theory of everything is love.

But given The Theory of Everything‘s superiority over sentimental disability dramas, it doesn’t just present that as the case. It shows you everything you need to know in order for you to work it out yourself, based on visual signs. It’s one of the only times I’ve been asked to read a film by the film itself, and it works just like a novel. Yes, it’s symbol hunting, but the puzzle highlights them in such a way that it makes it accurate. It’s little wonder why McCarten won Best Adapted Screenplay at the same event that gave Redmayne his Best Actor award.

It’s as if the universe aligned so that one day, someone would be intelligent enough to form this equation. Now that we know the answer, as Hawking said, we know the mind of God. Time, it’s said, is what stops everything from happening at once. And these events, which compress his life in the same way he himself does at the conclusion, make it all happen at once. This isn’t like an origin story, as if to say, “How did he become the way he is?”. That would be both disrespectful and inaccurate, because that never happened. His life developed, and changed as it went on. There’s no distinction between it, and that’s good. If this were fiction, I’d say it were a metaphor for how we can change so much over the course of our life. This isn’t like Darth Vader, there isn’t an event that suddenly transforms him. Life’s more interesting than that. We, the audience, can see his life for what it is. You have to take a step back to appreciate a work of art. And only when we all do that, and see one person’s life as a whole, as one, singular thing, along with his individual philosophies, compared to the philosophies of those around him, do we get what all life is. It brings us all together, into our own singularity, where we share a mind and soul, so that the existence of God no longer matters, because we understand that life, ultimately, is something random, but not without meaning. And hopefully, if we’re very lucky, it can be beautiful as well.

The Theory of Everything: symbols edited make beautiful art 10/10.

Where to see BAFTA’s Best Screenplay nominations

The most important day in the industry is almost upon us, and BAFTA’s Best Screenplay nominations have been announced. These are the products considered to have the best story, and you can see them all now:


Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is now available on Blu-ray from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook, Michel Litvak, and David Lancaster’s Whiplash is now playing.

Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler hasn’t been released.

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo’s Birdman is now playing.

Richard Linklater‘s Boyhood is now playing.


Jason Hall’s American Sniper is now playing.

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is now available on Blu-ray from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. (“Worth buying” – Jeremy Jahns)

Paul King and Hamish McColl’s Paddington is now playing.

Anthony McCarten‘s The Theory of Everything is now playing.

Graham Moore’s The Imitation Game is now playing.


The 68th British Academy Film Awards will be simulcast on 2nd February on BBC One and BBC Three.


2014’s winners were Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell’s American Hustle for Best Original Screenplay and Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s Philomena for Best Adapted Screenplay.