Directed by James Mirch. Starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.
Imagine being at the peak of your education. Imagine falling head over heels in love. Imagine being on the midst of greatness, endless possibilities ahead of you, then suddenly being told you have but two years left to live.
Professor Stephen Hawking is one of the most famous and remarkable scientists of our time, and his tale is a miraculous one, full of hardship, love, perseverance and hope. James Marsh’s biopic about the Cambridge cosmologists tells the story in fine fashion, honouring the achievements of this great scientist, professional and personal. The film stars Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables, My Week With Marilyn) as our renowned lead, and Felicity Jones (Like Crazy) as Jane Hawking.
It is through Jane that we are given this charming version of Hawking’s trials and accomplishments, as the script by Anthony McCarten is adapted from her own memoir, Travelling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen. The candid account she delivers us is what provides the film with so much heart and relatability, and is also why love is such a prominent theme throughout.
We are presented Hawking in his early twenties, as an awkward, jaunty doctoral student in 1963 Cambridge. In the opening scene of the film, he apprehensively introduces himself to a young Jane Wilde, a friendly soul preparing for a PhD in medieval poetry. They bond over their shared intellectual curiosity, and flirt about matters of religion and science, and as the night begins to die, a romance blossoms. Before long she has met his family, and accepted his invitation to the May ball, where the unlikely pair share their first kiss under the stars. Alas, as young Hawking’s life takes shape, being the top of his class and on the verge of scientific greatness, not to mention falling in love, the world around him suddenly comes crashing down as he plummets, crumpled and prone, onto Trinity Hall’s flagstones.
His formidable sickness strikes hard. The diagnosis: motor neurone disease, meaning his muscles will progressively waste and he most likely has only a couple of years to live. When Hawking asks whether his brain will still function, in a desperate plea for something positive, the doctor replies – oh yes, except no one will know what you’re thinking. Although Hawking seemingly gives up on himself, Jane battles his stubbornness fiercely, instilling a sense of hope, which in turn, sparks the determination and perseverance that Hawking is now renowned for. Accordingly, we are able to marvel at his personal and professional successes, which run in parallel to his physical decline.
This is where the films greatest strengths become most apparent, as Redmayne’s character takes on his fierce physical regression that demands great dedication from the young actor. However, this is certainly a triumph for Redmayne, who is completely convincing in his physicality, and credible in his pain and struggle. But most of all, what I found most compelling about his performance, is how the actor expresses Stephen’s infectious personality (his jocularity, his aloofness, his stubbornness) so effectively, regardless of the physical state of the character. This is reflected through his tears when he and Jane silently recognize that their half a lifetime of love has come to an end, and as they mourn it, the scene hits home.
Beside him is Jones, who depicts a woman who dedicates so much to helping Hawking battle his disease, whilst raising three children and still trying to live her own life. The role demands tremendous emotion and grace, which Jones delivers naturally, especially in her personal battle of love vs. responsibility that comes near the end of her relationship with Hawking, through her growing feelings towards kind choirmaster, Jonathan.
Addtionally, Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography is an imaginative and visually glorious feat, giving us the ultraviolet glow of a Cambridge May ball, the cosmic swirl of cream in a coffee cup. Not to mention the first-person perspective of the radiant fireplace through a hole in Hawking’s knitwear, that inspired one of his greatest breakthroughs. In partnership with Marsh, Delhomme captures a certain sequence in the style of old-fashioned home recordings, while others are given a more traditional and polished cinematic look that impress without distracting from the story.
Despite these admirations, it seems as though the film detracts away from Hawking’s point of view once the film begins to focus closely on Jane’s personal battles and inner heartaches. The film presents a close and rather sincere insight into the relationship between Hawking and his wife, yet at times it feels sanitized, and somewhat undramatic, given the circumstances. Did they never fight? Or disagree? Most of their dissimilarities are expressed in a polite spirit of wholly academic debate, or through silence. Furthermore, the film concentrates closely on its themes of love and romance, which at times draws away from Hawking’s personal trials, leaving some questions unanswered. Was he ever completely lost? Did he ever lose hope? How did he feel when Jane was slipping away from him?
Overall, the film delivers masterful performances that pull hard on the heartstrings of the viewer. Marsh provides us with a story thatworks best as a study of human vulnerability and love's way with us all, and as such, a handsomely mounted, slightly hollow picture by the end becomes a very affecting one. The Theory of Everything is inspiring, honest and moving. Brilliantly worded by The Guardians Catherine Shaord, it is ‘a universal story, extracted from a unique one.’