It’s round two in the battle of the scientist biopics and much anticipation has surrounded The Theory of Everything, released on New Year’s Day and telling the story of 30 years in Stephen Hawking’s life, from his early days at Cambridge to the onset of his motor neurone disease, and covering the publication of A Brief History of Time. Where this departs from the usual science movie is a love-story focus on Hawking’s relationship with his wife Jane from the moment they met at Cambridge to their divorce in the 1990s.
It is their personalities, experiences and struggles which are centre-stage rather than either the science or Hawking’s growing disability which is an interesting and effective approach. It means that the film is less a chart of the physical effects of motor neurone disease and more an intimate examination of the domestic consequences of living with and caring for someone who was once told he only had two years to live. It also takes quite a light touch with the science, which may disappoint some, but for the majority will be a relief. In fact the approach is the same – the science is there and integral to his life but the perspective taken is more human and seen primarily through the prism of his home life. So we see the couple debating the existence of God so that Jane’s belief is mirrored by Stephen’s faith in science.
As a whole the film works pretty well; it manages to be not quite a biopic, not quite a science-film and not quite a film about disability and is all the better for navigating between these potential pitfalls, instead creating something that feels as though it is about real people. It is difficult to take a famous name and look behind their public persona, and in stripping away that surface appearance creates a film character that seems credible. A reflection and not an impersonation of who they are, with more depth than a media profile may allow, showing that however eminent or respect the subject is, they are still influenced by the same emotional effects as everyone else, shaping their decision-making. This is a real success of The Theory of Everything, giving the viewer a sense that Hawking is not entirely defined by his job, he’s not just a famous scientist, and his life is far more than his intellectual output. The domestic approach may not be to everyone’s taste but I think it’s wielded here with great effect.
The performances of course are key to this and Eddie Redmayne, playing Hawking, is astonishingly good. This is not much of a surprise, he’s an actor I like a lot and consistent in both the quality of performance and fairly trustworthy in his selection of films. He always creates great depth and pathos in his roles, but combining that emotional complexity with the physicality of this character is so impressive. In My Week with Marilyn, Michelle Williams may have got all the attention for her Monroe, but it was Redmayne who was the emotional heart, effortlessly carrying the film with his tender portrayal of a heartbroken assistant director. Similarly as Stephen in the televised adaptation of Birdsong, he got it spot on. Now Birdsong is my favourite modern novel and although BBC sold out on Stephen’s eventual motivation -using the clichéd child as a reason to live, rather than that war somehow restoring his faith in others – Redmayne’s performance captured the detached complexity of Faulk’s character exactly. Here as Hawking you get to see the full result of the condition using all of Redmayne’s subtly to show the internal frustration and external bodily effects, as well as the warmth and humour of his personality.
The film is equally focused on Jane Hawking played by Felicity Jones, and her increasing difficulty in managing their three children, running the household and Stephen’s worsening condition. There’s an interesting moment late in the film where she says the doctors had only given him two years to live and it’s ambiguous whether she means ‘and you’ve done so well’ or ‘I only thought this would be for two years.’ Jane is also a fully rounded character in her own right, not merely a reflection of Hawking and it was fascinating to see the sacrifices she makes in caring for her husband particularly in her chaste attachment to local choir master Jonathan (Charlie Cox).
Antony McCarten’s script is engaging and restrained, resisting the urge to make sweeping generalisation about motor neurone disease or hammering home a faux-emotional impact which a more Hollywood version would have attempted. It also looks beautiful and in the Q&A that followed this BFI preview, the director James Marsh discussed the light effects designed to give it a slight sense of heightened reality and reflect Hawking’s interest in cosmology in the colour scheme. The 1963 scenes at the Cambridge May Ball in particular are beautiful and certainly capture the ‘magical’ quality of those occasions.
But this really is Redmayne’s film. Marsh also explained that as scenes are never filmed in sequence, different periods of Hawking’s life were being shot simultaneously, meaning Redmayne had to switch between several different degrees of disability, often on the same day. This is an interesting insight into the technical accomplishment he needed to both manage it and make it convincing. So, having seen both The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything the big question seems to be who will win the Oscar. The Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes have nominated both actors, and these are seen as likely indicators of BAFTA and Oscar choices. Well, it may be neither of them seeing as the Academy tends to reward American actors most often. They’re similar kinds of actor and both give excellent performances so it is quite hard to choose between them, but if I have to predict, I think Redmayne’s just got this one.
The Theory of Everything was shown at a BFI Southbank preview. It opens nationwide on 1 January 2015.