The Theory of Everything is at first a pretty standard telling of the early relationship of two Cambridge students. One is a bright young humanities major and the other a quirky but brilliant scientist.
Early on we get scenes of the boy solving impossible physics questions in record time interspersed with his clumsily courtship of the girl. There is impassioned scratching of equations on chalk boards and awkward conversations with the new partner’s parents around the dinner table. It is all highly charming but not unlike a lot things you have seen on screen before. It’s like Good Will Hawking or, if you’d prefer, Love in the Time of Quantum Physics. Then, twenty minutes in he falls down and everything changes.
The depiction of the initial onset of Stephen Hawking’s motor neuron disease and his and new love Jane’s responses to it are heartbreaking and beautifully played. It is here that the tone of the film is set. From this point on it is the story of two inspirationally brave and committed people, carrying on a life together in unimaginable circumstances.
The performances of both leads are sensational. Eddie Redmayne is guaranteed an Oscar nomination and the BAFTA is as good as his but Felicity Jones is equally superb and they deserve equal recognition. Their portrayals of Jane and Stephen Hawking and the things they go through feel very real and as a result this comes across as more genuine than many similar true life stories. The Imitation Game for example, felt contrived in places whereas little of this seems engineered or exaggerated.
The professor is clearly the better known of the two and Redmayne’s performance perfectly matches the persona we are familiar with. This is the genius who wrote A Brief History of Time but he is also the guy who cameoed in Star Trek and The Simpsons as well filming a sketch for Monty Python’s recent live show (in which he ran over Brian Cox). Both sides of him are played on screen and that famous sense of humour translates well, providing welcome levity alongside the drama.
Of course the other aspect of the man is his physicality and when I wrote my review for the documentary Hawking I stated that, due to this, the only who could convincingly play Stephen Hawking is Stephen Hawking. I am now prepared to take that back. Eddie Redmayne’s sensitive and realistic portrayal of a man with an extreme disability here is easily the match of Daniel Day Lewis’ in My Left Foot and all of this has marked him out as a serious talent.
He’ll next be seen as the bad guy in the Wachowski’s undoubtedly overblown space epic Jupiter Ascending but that’s just a scheduling issue. You know, big effects pictures have a much longer post production period and The Theory of Everything, which he probably filmed more recently, will ensure a very impressive career henceforth.
This is not just a one hander though. It is the story of a marriage and as the strain of caring for Stephen begins to weigh on his wife, Felicity Jones starts to truly shine. Hawking was, and is, a remarkably positive man who refuses to let his disability hold him back. This is massively admirable but there is a cost for those that help make this possible.
Felicity Jones excels with the mix of love, commitment and sacrifice that was evidently Jane Hawking’s life and in many respects you feel her pain and frustration more than her husband’s. This may be because her circumstances are a little more relatable to most of us but with a less assured performance her plight could have got lost. Like Eddie Redmayne, Jones has impressed in previous roles but has now stepped up level.
Credit also needs to go to director James Marsh. Some film makers may excel at the visuals but others are able to get great performances out of actors and on this evidence Marsh has great skill in this area. He has also perfectly managed the balance between this man’s and this woman’s story. The Theory of Everything is so much more than a Professor Hawking biopic, it is her life too.
In fact it is Jane Hawking’s book that the film is based on and knowing this this it is tempting to find evidence of her spin being put on it. Actually though it seems like an honest version of events. More so certainly than the aforementioned film Hawking that was narrated by the famous cosmologist himself. This isn’t to criticise that previous movie, there is nothing in it to contradict what we see here, but it did feel as though some of that memoir glossed over things in the marriage a little. Interestingly there is one key moment in the relationship that this film, The Theory of Everything, only alludes to rather than spelling it out. On this occasion, as throughout the whole picture, high drama is eschewed in favour of genuine and touching emotion.
It is possible that there is not quite enough science in the film for some viewers but actually it has more important things to deal with. In concentrating on the actual humans rather than the theoretical physics, The Theory of Everything succeeds in being one of the most powerful true love stories ever committed to film.
Is this one for the kids?
The Theory of Everything is rated 12A and I have to say it is not immediately evident why. The BBFC website refers to brief sexualised images and mild language but I don’t think there is anything here worse than in any number of older PG movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Big or all of the pre-1987 Bond films.
The most potentially upsetting element of the film for a young audience is the result of Stephen Hawking’s muscle wasting but I really hope images of disability are not effecting film classification.
The Ripley Factor:
I wouldn’t necessarily say this is a feminist movie but it does treat the female lead with the same attention and respect as the man.
It would have been easy to tell much of this story without showcasing the incredible strength and intelligence of both Jane and Stephen Hawking and the film should be commended for so dextrously managing to succeed in this.
Interestingly I think the film may struggle to pass the Bechdel Test despite giving us one of the strongest and most genuine female characters in recent memory.