The Theory of Everything tells the story of the relationship between Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane, beginning with their first meeting, and continuing on as Stephen finds fame and fortune, but his health deteriorates as motor-neurone disease takes hold. This biopic is making a splash in awards season, Eddie Redmayne having already won a Golden Globe for his performance, and the film tallying up an impressive 8 nominations at the upcoming Academy Awards, with nods for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress. Given the hype that has built around the film, I had high expectations, especially about Eddie Redmayne’s much-applauded performance.
I was not disappointed. As the world’s most famous living scientist, Eddie Redmayne delivers a captivating physical performance: from the first shakes and stumbles that foretells the gravity of his condition, to the point at which he is trapped in his own body, unable to move at all, Redmayne perfectly portrays not only the effects of a devastating illness, but also the spark, wit and sense of humour belonging to a man we all are familiar with. There will be some who question whether there is anything more to Redmayne’s performance than a remarkable physical transformation. These doubts are unfounded, as even without an actors’ main tools (movement and speech), Redmayne is able to communicate to the audience charm, wit and heart-wrenching emotion.
However, whilst Stephen Hawking and Eddie Redmayne are the names likely to be associated with the film, there are two women who are fundamental to its success. They are Jane Hawking and Felicity Jones, Jane Hawking being the wife of Stephen Hawking, on whose memoirs the film is based, and Felicity Jones being the wonderful actress who plays her. It is nice to see, in mainstream media, a heroine who doesn’t necessarily fit the profile of a “strong” woman: she’s not uber-confidant, there are few witty one-liners here, and she doesn’t wield around a gun or have a talent for kung-fu. Jane is in fact fairly timid and reserved. But there is no doubting her strength. In Felicity Jones’s eyes, we see Jane’s determination burn and her resilience as the years go on makes for heartbreaking viewing. Though the film spans almost forty years, Jones doesn’t undergo any dramatic make-up or prosthetics, the filmmakers instead relying on Jones herself to make us believe her transition from a naïve, young student to a woman thirty years into a complicated marriage and at the end of her tether. Jones fully delivers, and whilst the calibre of Redmayne’s performance is unquestionable, it’s possibly Jones that steals the show. Redmayne’s performance is a master class in physical control, but so is Jones’s. Stephen and Jane are both people who are trapped. He cannot escape the limitations and deterioration of his body, she the bubbling emotions that she desperately hides behind a mask of strength and stoicism. Through Felicity Jones’s performance, we feel the weight of the world on her shoulders.
Given that the film is based on her memoirs, it could easily be biased in her favour. But former documentarian, James Marsh, directs a film that elegantly shows all perspectives, and showcases imperfect, but sympathetic characters. Given that this is a film based on the lives of real people who are still living, there are potentially delicate issues here – the film is careful in its portrayal of the relationship between Stephen and his nurse, Elaine, for example, that has been the source of controversy. Marsh manages to avoid these issues, but it comes at a cost.
The film skims over the darker parts of Stephen and Jane’s relationship, meaning that some aspects of the film don’t always quite ring true. Stephen and Jane are too easy on each other, too forgiving, and there is perhaps an unrealistic lack of bitterness and resentment between them, that interviews with the real life Jane suggest did exist. That is not to say that the film sugar-coats the characters and the things they go through. We see Stephen’s physical decline in painful detail, and though their relationship starts off feeling fairy-tale-esque and the film doesn’t go as dark as it could, their relationship is shown as complicated and often strained.
In truth, this is not a film about science or illness, or even just Stephen Hawking. It is a film about a relationship between two amazing people, and it is this relationship that raises the film above many other biopics or tragic “illness” stories. Unlike so many of romances that dominate the screen, this relationship feels genuine and believable, despite skipping over some of the nastier bits. The film doesn’t offer a “love conquers all” message, and it doesn’t have a fairy-tale ending. It could have easily felt heavy-handed, systematically designed to jerk tears from your eyes. But, ‘The Theory of Everything’ in the end feels optimistic and hopeful.
Cemented by two astounding performances, The Theory of Everything rises above others of its ilk by relying on genuine, heartfelt emotion and a relationship that you can believe.