It’s a horrible thing to say, and might just get the blog taken down, but I’ve never thought about Professor Stephen Hawking’s life before he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease; I never realised that he was married, had three children, or that he is now seventy-two years old. For most of its running time, The Theory of Everything, directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim), subtly and compassionately depicts the professor’s life, his marriage to Jane Wilde, as well as his struggles with ALS.
This year’s Oscar nominations have yet to be announced, but it’s going to be a tough call as to who wins Best Actor. In a category that’s going to be the most contested in years, Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn, Les Misérables), in his first lead role, may well take home the prize, and no one could argue that he doesn’t deserve it. Starting off with a twitch of the hand, or a stumble, Redmayne gives a faultless and heartrending performance as Hawking’s body slowly deteriorates, eventually resembling the hunched figure who we all recognise. Redmayne never forgets the tragic irony surrounding Hawking, a supremely intelligent, funny, and compassionate man trapped inside his own body; his eyes revealing the loneliness and frustration he feels, as well as the odd mischievous glance accompanied by a playful smile.
While Redmayne is getting all the column inches, Felicity Jones (Cemetery Junction, The Invisible Woman) also does some excellent work as Jane, much of the film’s power coming from her hurting to see the man she loves being taken away from her, but realising that inside that brittle body, her husband is still there. Jane expected the disease to take her husband quickly, for him not to suffer, she never expected the ALS to break down his body so cruelly and slowly, that Stephen would still be alive decades later.
The main reason that the film works so well is down to the rapport between Redmayne and Jones. There’s plenty for couples to recognise: laughing through the tough times, how stubborn they both are, hurting each other by not saying how they’re feeling. Redmayne and Jones convincingly put across how much Stephen and Jane love each other, as well as how different they are as people, their marriage lasting for so long when other couples would have given up.
The Theory of Everything isn’t quite the flawless weepie, Marsh once-or-twice putting the point across with a sledgehammer, whereas the rest of the film is gentle and thoughtful. The worst offender is one of the final scenes where, at a conference, Hawking is asked how he feels, looking back at his life. We cut to Hawking daydreaming, everything and everyone around him frozen as he gets out of his wheelchair and picks a pen up off the floor. This feels at odds with the rest of the film, which shows Hawking’s ever-worsening condition in a frank and modest way; you don’t feel like you’re being manipulated into shedding a tear. It’s as if this scene was thrown in for audiences who want nuance put across in slow motion, orchestral score blaring.
This only happens in a couple of scenes, and doesn’t ruin things. Probably the best word to describe The Theory of Everything is how eloquent it is. Eloquent in how it portrays Hawking overcoming his illness, fighting to communicate what is going on inside his head, both his incredible mind as well as his love for Jane; eloquent in showing how Jane was also struggling along with her husband, pushed and tested for over twenty years; and eloquent in how complex marriage can be, two people fighting for the same thing in different ways, usually getting things right, but not always. Like Hawking, The Theory of Everything is smarter than its peers, funny, and unashamedly hopeful.
4 out of 5