For many, Stephen Hawking’s name will be synonymous with his best-selling book A Brief History Of Time, which made his groundbreaking theories about the nature of the universe – just about – intelligible to the masses.
The Theory Of Everything delves back to the university years of Hawking’s life, and tells a story that, as its producer Tim Bevan says, “nobody knew much about.” But the film isn’t just about Hawking, but also about his future wife Jane – how they met, fell in love and remained together, even as Hawking began to display the worst effects of motor neuron disease.
Eddie Redmayne is uncannily good as Hawking, a twinkle-eyed science geek when he first meets Jane (Felicity Jones) at Cambridge university in 1963. Although they seem an odd match at first – he’s a cosmologist and atheist, she’s a Church of England arts student – they’re soon inseparable. Hawking’s brilliance allows him to be laid-back and seemingly complacent with his work; where his peers struggle with the problems set by physics teacher Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis), Hawking scribbles his equations down on the back of a train time table at the last minute and still gets almost all of them right.
At first, Hawking’s illness seems to go unnoticed, to himself as much as anyone else; but as the basis for his PhD thesis coalesces in his mind – it’s about black holes, inspired by a lecture given by Roger Penrose (Christian McKay) his body begins to fail him. A bone-crunching fall in the cloisters lands Hawking in hospital, where a doctor gives him the gloomy prognosis: the disease affecting his body will ultimately prove fatal. He’s given just two years left to live.
Adapted from Jane Hawking’s book Travelling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen (courtesy of screenwriter Anthony McCarten), The Theory Of Everything tells an even-handed story about two extraordinarily brave people. Hawking battles against the constraints of his body, the rigour of his mind proving more than a match for a disease that should easily defeat him. But Jane’s equally courageous, becoming his wife, muse and carer, as well as a mother to the three children they have together.
Films such as this can sometimes fall into the trap of being too sentimental and soft-focus, and the early scenes at Cambridge university, with their hazy sunshine and misty cinematography, appear to confirm our worst fears. But the cosiness of the opening proves to be both necessary – this is, after all, an all-too-brief period where Hawking still had his mobility as well as his intellect – and also a set-up for something far more uncompromising.
Director James Marsh (Man On Wire, Shadow Dancer) captures the brutal impact of Hawking’s fall – the incident that marks what should be the final and tragic phase of his life. Through Redmayne’s painfully believable physical performance and Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography, we feel every sinew strain against the disease’s unstoppable march. And as the film wears on, the photography becomes more imaginative still: dislocation and suffering gives way to odd moments of wonder, such as Hawking’s unexpected glimpse of a glimmering fire, where we see his eye become the heat radiating from a black hole. As Hawking loses the ability to speak, Delhomme continues to find ways to communicate the professor’s emotions without words. What could have been a blandly televisual drama takes on a more cinematic dimension.
It’s around the midpoint that The Theory Of Everything gives Jane more emphasis, and Felicity Jones’s performance comes to the fore. The frustration of a woman who’s sacrificed much of her own life and learning to look after her husband is all there in her wan smile. That she keeps so much sadness and longing repressed makes her all the more sympathetic.
Unexpectedly, there’s a considerable amount of humour among the sadness. Throughout, Hawking remains a wickedly funny character – Redmayne captures the glimmer of mischief as well as intelligence in the professor’s eyes, and when he zips around his electric wheelchair alternately pretending to be HAL 9000 and then a Dalek, the scene comes across as a natural part of his character rather than a forced moment of frivolity.
Superbly acted, tenderly written and astutely directed, The Theory Of Everything is a compelling portrait of Britain’s most famous living scientist. But ultimately, what Marsh’s film leaves us with is not just an admiration for Hawking’s academic achievements, but a moving account of two people who, despite everything the universe throws at them, remain kindred spirits throughout.
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