“Why had a broken romance about a diseased physicist taken hold of my heart like this?
Because, I realized, it’s a story I know.”
Spoiler Alert: This article reveals significant details about the 2014 film The Theory of Everything.
ever have I been so gripped by something that made me so furious. The Theory of Everything is stunning. It struck me deeply, but not because of the artistic cinematography or the tragically beautiful romance. Those things are present, but I noticed during my time in the theater that the movie stands apart from the rest in its genre for some other reason. The story reverberated in me, and it took a little while for me to identify what was so familiar about it.
Eddie Redmayne’s performance is unparalleled, though it hurt me a little to see Marius (a core personality in Les Miserables, the movie that — by far — I’ve seen more than any other) cripple under the effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Felicity Jones, his romantic counterpart, likewise captures all of the emotion and depth and tragedy her character should have held. The two brought me to tears enough during those two hours and three minutes to make me glad I came alone. The artsy editing and filtered lighting also make the movie a joy to watch.
But the film’s beauty is wrapped around a postlapsarian story, a thin veil dressing up a broken frame. Sometimes it shines brightly enough that the darkness doesn’t look so dark. But it’s there: a death sentence, disappointment, infidelity in the form of pornography. Worst of all in this case, unwarranted and unjustified betrayal — betrayal that is worsened because it goes virtually unacknowledged by the filmmakers.
Going in, I didn't expect this film to elicit much meditation on my part. But even a month after seeing the movie, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The Theory of Everything is heartrending in the best and worst of ways. It tells the story of Stephen Hawking, the 20th-century physics genius whose significant cosmological work — a project to formulate a so called “theory of everything” — is interrupted by a diagnosis of motor neurone disease and a notice that he only has two years left to live. At this point, Stephen has recently become acquainted with Jane Wilde, a fellow student at Oxford with whom he is rapidly falling in love.
When Jane finds out about Stephen’s diagnosis from a mutual friend, she chases him down and drags him away from a dark room and an unsympathetic television set to pull him out into the sunlight. “We’re going to fight this illness together,” she says, vowing to stay by his side until the end.
And she does. Uncomplaining, she takes his unwanted burden upon herself and the two are married. A year goes by, during which Stephen loses functionality in various parts of his body one stage at a time. Jane holds to her pledge, caring for her husband in every way. Another year goes by. Although Stephen’s brain remains fully competent for the duration of his illness, his speech, movement, and ability to walk are progressively impaired. With each passing day, Jane remains as supportive as ever. Having outlived his two-year deadline, Stephen fervently continues his scientific research as he races against time. Year after year passes and the physicist continues to live.
Three children, a wheelchair, and a speech therapy program later, Jane is the very embodiment of steadfast long-suffering. Just as persistent as her husband’s gradual decline in health, her care for him is unwavering. She never ceases to lovingly maneuver his limp arms into the sleeves of his sweaters, or to patiently translate his slurred speech for dinner guests. An attractive male friend — the church choir director living in the wake of his wife’s death — steps into Jane’s life and offers much-needed assistance in caring for the family, but the two wisely back away from one another when attractions start to form. Ever faithful, Jane once again takes up the burden of caring for her husband and children alone.
Had I missed the final ten minutes of the movie, I could’ve walked away without an extraordinary impression. A picture of unfailing love, perhaps, but one I could likely forget.
But then came a scene so subtle I had to do some Wikipedia fact checking afterwards to verify what I thought I had witnessed. With no warning whatsoever, Stephen divorces Jane to marry his speech therapist.
It was shocking.
Shocking that the filmmakers downplay such a pivotal moment, yes. The focus is clearly on Stephen and Jane’s life together, and the divorce is a minor detail to be brushed over in the final moments of the film. But more shocking, of course, is the action itself. It recasts the story entirely.
“I have loved you,” Jane says through her tears. “I have done my best.” The scene changes, and he’s gone.
Before desecrating Stephen’s marriage, the speech therapist shares a flirtatious (portrayed as touching, even) moment with him after she brings in his mail. A copy of a pornographic magazine has appeared in the mailbox (part of a bet with a friend, as it turns out), and she offers Stephen a peek. Like the pages she slowly flips through for him, my stomach turned in disgust.
Other than that momentary scene, the filmmakers don’t draw much attention to this secondary relationship. The movie ends on a happy note with the (now severed) primary couple watching contentedly as their three children prance around a garden. The credits roll. A textual onscreen epilogue informs viewers that Stephen Hawking is still alive today, having beaten his death sentence by five decades. I might have been happy for him too, if I hadn’t been so distracted by that last bit about the divorce. As it was, I came out of the theater in a rage.
I lay in the dark that night, unsleeping as I turned over in my mind what had happened as if I’d been personally wounded by it. Later that week, I found myself passionately venting about the movie to friends who hadn’t heard of it, met only with patient nodding.
Why had a broken romance about a diseased physicist taken hold of my heart like this?
Because, I realized, it’s a story I know.
It’s on page after page of the Old Testament. It’s God and Israel. It’s Hosea and Gomer. It’s us, before the Word became flesh and the cross entered the picture. It’s us in spite of the cross, every time we turn away from our God to chase after an idol.
We know the story well. It’s the flawless, strong, patient hero who loves and pursues one who is weak, unlovable, and helpless. And then it’s the response of this same beloved: disloyalty in the very face of perfect faithfulness. Shocking. Unwarranted. Unjustified.
Ezekiel 16 tells a story of such a betrayed hero. He stumbles upon her in the middle of an open field, filthy and wallowing in her own blood. He washes, anoints, feeds, and clothes her, wraps her in silk and covers her in jewelry, and enters into a covenant with her, gently taking her as His own.
“But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore,” He mournfully remembers as He retells the story. “How sick is your heart,” He cries. “Because you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen prostitute.” How could she? we ask, as we powerlessly watch the story unfold. Utterly free from any obligation to do so, He cleaned her up and carried her home when she was left for dead. In return, all she did was forget. She spat in His face and chased after other lovers. She despised the oath in breaking the covenant.
Or, in this case, she faithfully put his limp, contorted arms through the sleeves of his sweater year after year, and he ran away with another woman.
God’s love, of course, goes far beyond the scope of this metaphor. Mike Cosper points out in his recent book that the stories told in movies and television shows often “long for and echo the truth” of Scripture. The Theory of Everything presents a vivid picture of the folly of idolatry in light of covenantal love.
The most extraordinary part is that God has reconciled us to Himself again, even after our faithlessness. His people worshiped idols, and He responded by sending His Son to die on a cross for their sake. We were dead in our sins and trespasses, but He made us alive and saved us as an act of pure grace. Return to Me, He calls, knowing full well what we’ve done against Him.
Like the symptoms of Stephen’s disease, sin’s effects are crippling. We’re worthless apart from our Savior, yet He saves us. We’re helpless, yet He cares for us. It’s a relationship in which we can contribute nothing He needs, yet He stays with us.
How could we forsake Him again for idols?
How could we be foolish enough to run away with a porn-wielding speech therapist?
 Meaning a story tinged by the effects of the Fall.
 Unfortunately, there is one place my interpretation of the movie breaks down. Jane slips into the choir director’s tent during a camping trip, and I’ve heard mixed impressions from other moviegoers about what they believe happened inside. For the sake of the analogy, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she is innocent. More cynical (read: realistic) readers will disagree with me that this is a possibility, but please stay with me a moment.
 Ezekiel 16:1-13; 15; 30. All Scripture quotations are from the ESV.
 Ezekiel 16:59.
 Ephesians 2:5.
 Malachi 3:7.
 For an explanation of the reasons God doesn’t need anything, look up “divine aseity.”
Sarah Johnson is an editor for Ecclesiam. She graduated in May from Wheaton College with a B.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies and English Literature. She owns far more books than she cares to admit and is now doing just what she always wanted — copyediting full-time at a Christian book publisher. Jim and Elisabeth Elliot are her heroes, she’ll quote C. S. Lewis at any given opportunity, and she loves ministry, theology, literature, discipleship, the church, and hearing testimonies of God’s transforming work. Like her namesake in the Old Testament, she has often gotten into trouble for her loud laugh.