What happens when you strip one of the greatest minds in scientific history of the ability to voice itself? With a scope as broad as its title, The Theory of Everything is a sweeping but strangely intimate romantic drama masquerading as a biopic, or perhaps it’s the other way around.
It bears in spirit a conspicuous resemblance to The Imitation Game in its focus on an Oxbridge educated genius troubled by immense personal hardship and adversity, but The Theory of Everything presents a more focused and intensive microscope on the personal exploits of the man himself, in particular his long and unique marriage. Whereas The Imitation Game was arguably as much about cracking the Enigma machine as it was about Alan Turing, this film peripheralises Hawking’s scientific achievements in favour of wholeheartedly exploring his relationship with Jane Wilde. It is, for want of a better phrase, a love story.
Stephen and Jane are unquestionably opposites. He is a fervently atheist scientist, she is a devoutly Christian linguist. They are initially drawn together by flirtatious cosmological arguments, but what binds these two together for the next thirty years is something altogether more powerful and even more unexpected. Stephen is diagnosed with motor neuron disease at the tender age of 21, just as his relationship with Jane is taking off. When doctors give him a life expectancy of two years, Stephen slips into a chasm of depression and self-isolation. Jane knows what their future inevitably holds, but she believes their love is strong enough to face it. It won’t be easy, but they will have each other. In their eyes, this is all that counts.
Quite obviously, the film required two actors with immense talent so as not to render this touching true story overly sentimental. It is a tale that begins with tragedy, but ends with anything but, and the stars needed to be able to comfortably weather the tumultuous storm of hardship along the way. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are well-chosen leads. Redmayne has already won a Golden Globe for his arresting performance, and quite deservedly so. This is by no means an impression – it is an inhabitation.
The actor quite literally engages with every tick of Hawking’s electric mind.
It is a remarkably physical and visceral performance. Redmayne’s struggle is arduous to watch as he descends deeper and deeper into his paralysed state (especially in one edge-of-the-seat scene where Stephen attempts to climb a set of stairs at home to reach his baby son). What is perhaps most astonishing is Redmayne’s capacity to show us the celestial explosion that is Hawking’s mind even when it is robbed of the ability to voice itself – at least not without the aid of his famous speech-generating device. This star-turn is without question Oscar fodder.
Jones has by far the less flashy role, but she has little trouble matching herself against Redmayne. It’s disappointing that she suffers from a screenplay bent on creating a slightly two-dimensional sweet and amiable Jane Wilde, but she is never totally outshined. Jones, if anything, is more impressive in her ability to make a rather limited role so empathetic. Despite her tireless devotion to Stephen and her enduring patience for his condition, it isn’t hard to see that Jane needed a little caring for herself. Jones’ subtle delivery and tightly contained emotions allow us to see this.
What the film fundamentally suggests is that it doesn’t matter that Stephen Hawking is a world-famous scientific prodigy; he is not immune from the strain of celebrity – the strain of humanity. It’s easy to forget that Stephen and Jane aren’t Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
These are normal people – one must not forget – who find their lives propelled into the realm of stardom long after they have built a life together.
What director James Marsh appears to be pushing is the draining burden forced upon this loving marriage. This is not a couple undergoing ordinary marital snags: it is quite literally one hurdle after another, and the film is very sympathetic of this. From the moment Stephen and Jane are pronounced husband and wife, the film transforms into a series of revealing vignettes that gradually explain the descent and disintegration of their vows to one another. It is a deterioration thirty years in the making, and Stephen and Jane’s efforts to maintain dignity and to persevere never pass unnoticed, but ultimately – and unfortunately – we know that this relationship is destined to crumble. In fact, when their divorce finally comes in 1995, we’re left wondering a little where it all went wrong, considering how well they ploughed through every other impediment life threw at them.
It should be noted that this is a film almost seamlessly fashioned. There is a meticulous attention to capturing the feel of the period. Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography plays like a series of faded polaroids, superbly bagging the majesty of Cambridge, and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s harrowing score grabs us by the throat the same way a Thomas Newman soundtrack does so well. It’s never quite as slick as it tries to be, but there is no doubt that a touching degree of craft has been applied to this picture.
Fans of Stephen Hawking’s academic success will probably be surprised by a lot of what they see. Don’t come looking for the science – it’s mostly rushed and raggedly glossed over – but come for the heart, the struggle, the humanity.