Title: The Theory Of Everything
Director: James Marsh
Major Players: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis
Out Of Five: Four
It’s only just over a year since we had the last film about Stephen Hawking. It was a documentary but now, to start off the New Year, there’s a different approach from director James Marsh, one that concentrates on the scientist’s early years and his first marriage. They’re not just two very different movies, they’ve also had very contrasting receptions.
Stephen Finnegan’s Hawking only got a limited distribution and the respectful but often unflinching documentary quickly moved to TV. The Theory Of Everything, however, opens in the UK on New Year’s Day and is already being seen as an award contender, with Golden Globe and Screen Actors’ Guild nominations already under its belt. The BAFTA and Oscar short lists are still to come.
The film, essentially, is a love story, focusing on the relationship between Hawking and his first wife Jane – their initial meeting and opposing views on religion, their marriage and three children and the eventual parting of the ways. In between those landmarks come others of equal, if not more, significance. The devastating diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease and the prognosis that Hawking only had two years to live. His PhD and growing status in his field, the loss of his voice and its replacement with the computerised electronic one that will forever be associated with him and, finally, the publishing of the bestseller that made him a worldwide celebrity.
The opening shot is clearly a family group, including a person in a wheelchair who we assume to be Hawking, but we can’t see their faces. It’s as if we’re looking at them through the eyes of somebody who’s taken their glasses off and has poor distance vision – they’re strangely distorted shapes. The image returns towards the end as well, but I won’t spoil things by revealing its significance.
The story is told in a very straightforward way – there’s little in the way of flashbacks or the like – but there are definitely moments of real imagination, even if there isn’t much for the science nerds in the audience. The moment when Hawking gets his inspiration for one of his theories is really rather wonderful: he’s struggling to get his jumper on – in fact, he’s stuck – and, through the gaps in the knitted yarn, he’s looking at the fire in the living room. There’s also another, less science-related but more moving one when we see how he’d like to see himself – escaping from his shell of a body, able to get off the stage and pick up a pen dropped by a girl in the front row. But he can’t, nor will he ever be able to.
What makes the film memorable are the two central performances from Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and Felicity Jones as Jane. His resemblance to the real Hawking is remarkable, but this is more than just an impersonation. His portrayal of physical decline has been done with the minimum of make-up and prosthetics, making it a physically and emotionally demanding piece of acting. It’s the role that’s brought Redmayne out of the shadows of British contemporaries, like Cumberbatch and Hardy, and the youngsters like Jack O’Connell and George McKay, all of whom have been hoovering up the plumb roles of late. He’s grasped the opportunity with both hands, showing that he can hold his own against any of the current crop of acting talent, UK or otherwise.
Felicity Jones is equally impressive as Jane, a taxing role, but in a completely different way. She’s just as determined as her husband, fiercely loyal and loves him deeply but, to the outside world, appears stiff and formal, despite everything that’s going on underneath the surface. There’s real subtlety and conviction in her portrayal of the stress placed on her by Hawking’s condition: she’s very nearly at her wits’ end at one stage yet refuses to give up.
The romantic nature of the story means that the film is rather rose tinted in its portrayal of Hawking. While the documentary showed a stubborn side to his character, one that contributed to his survival well in excess of the two years his was initially given to live, here he’s much more idealised. There’s only one instance of him getting angry and a few moments of sadness. Apart from that, he soldiers on bravely with a twinkle in his eye. It’s a pity the script doesn’t allow Redmayne to bring us even closer to the truth of the man, but that takes nothing away from what is a real star turn.
Despite suspecting that there’s probably more to the story than is being shown on the screen, The Theory Of Everything is still a very well-made piece of cinema, full of warmth and compassion as well as romance. But its real plus points – and they are huge – are Redmayne and Jones.
The Theory Of Everything is released throughout the UK on Thursday, 1 January 2015.