When I first heard about The Theory of Everything, I’m fairly sure I rolled my eyes. Yet another biopic of a British genius. I thought it’d be racked with clichés, a predictable and cheesy journey with little creativity or style. I was completely and utterly wrong, and never have I been so happy to admit that. Some biopics seem disconnected from the person they’re meant to be exploring; they take a observatory view that doesn’t either flesh out or challenge the perception the wider world already has. The Theory of Everything avoids this wonderfully, offering an intimate, funny and honest portrayal of Stephen Hawking.
A film about Stephen Hawking could have failed spectacularly. Building his struggle with motor neuron disease against a career, intellectual story may have been slow, even impractical. Stephen Hawking is a difficult ‘character study’. James Marsh was faced with a triple threat of issues when it came to making the audience connect with him. Firstly, his prestige and reputation as an icon of intellect, only magnified due to the fact that Hawking himself is still alive and therefore the public’s perception of him is more direct than say J. M. W. Turner. Secondly, with intellect comes confusion to the general public, so I am not sure many would be riveted to long winding discussions of space time singularities. Finally, and though this may seem harsh, Hawking’s conditions presents a problem. How can an audience connect fully to a lead who loses the ability to effectively communicate such complex thought?
The Theory of Everything conquers such problems impressively. Instead of being a film about Stephen Hawking, it is a film about Stephen and Jane Wilde Hawking. This allows a scientific story to be somewhat sidestepped for a romantic, and arguably more human and interesting one. It also means that the loss of speech becomes much less of an issue. By tracking the two leads from the beginning of their relationship, we see how they communicate with each other, understand what, and how much, a specific glance or expression means we can gleam tremendous amounts about their personalities and emotions. This is of course carried by incredible performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. The power of Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking is obvious and indisputable. The way he contorts himself, moves his body and face, how he says so much simply with his eyes, how he brings so much humour to a man one may be tempted to play entirely sincerely and heroically… he’s a triumph, and this is an Oscar worthy performance.
Jones, perhaps inevitably, is more subtle but still superb. She’s heartbreaking and it’s a wonder to see such a strong will be eroded and knocked back but never fully falter. It’s with Jane that we get the real emotional moments of the film, the stripped back and raw glimpses of the impact of Hawking’s disease. A lesser director and lesser actress could have made Jane unsympathetic in her infidelity and separation from her husband, but this film understands the great strain and pressure she was under. It’s nice to have a female character who is just as impressive as her male counterpart, especially in a biopic where it may be tempting to scale down all supporting characters to abide by the theory that great men make history. Jane is as smart as Stephen, and doesn’t sacrifice her own studies, eventually completing a PhD. Jane keeps her own convictions about religion while doing her utmost to understand Stephen’s at times aggressively anti-God physics. It seems ridiculous to say this about an actual person, especially when the screenplay is based on Jane’s own book, but it’s wonderful that she’s her own person in this film, not once seeping into the shadow of her husband’s greatness.
This film does pack an emotional punch, but probably not in the way you’d think. It’s time that gets you, right in that final moment that had me crying in the cinema, on the way out and all the way home. How things change, for better or for worse – sometimes you don’t know which. Time is what Hawking is most concerned about, and it’s what concerns us about him, as time progresses his disease and deteriorates his body but never his mind. In The Theory of Everything, it’s time that moves you, the simple pleasure of remembering who people were knowing what they’ve become, with twinges of sadness and pride.
Ashley is a passive aggressive 16 year old from Norwich. She is a feminist, a vegetarian, and a huge fan of Taylor Swift who wears both short skirts AND t-shirts. She loves a lot of things, mostly Breaking Bad and history. Most likely to be found crying because somebody won on a gameshow. Her favourite films are Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lost in Translation, Pulp Fiction and The Royal Tenenbaums. She blogs at pacificdaylighttime and tweets at @heartswellss.