Getting my cinematic 2015 off to a great start was James Marsh’s biopic of Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything which opened yesterday. Hawking is an iconic figure even if, like me, you’ve never made it past the first chapter of A Brief History of Time. The story of how a young man diagnosed with motor neurone disease and given only two years to live, not only survived but became the most renowned scientific thinker of his generation is remarkable enough. However, Marsh’s film is, in fact, the story of two lives – Stephen and his wife Jane.
So core is this relationship to The Theory of Everything, that for the first twenty minutes or so, it feels like it could almost be the beginning of one of those terribly British love stories that feel aimed squarely at an American audience. The young Stephen comes across as the kind of socially uncertain, bright teenager who, these days, would probably be found cosplaying with his friends. Jane is a somewhat playful young woman who cherishes the Christian faith that her lover doesn’t share.
However, as Hawking’s disease becomes apparent, their relationship becomes more complex and interesting. While there is no doubt that they love each other, we see how love means different things for both of them and how they are both tempted by – and ultimately give way to – the charms of others. Their differing views of science and religion remain throughout, leading them to a compromise full of unspoken frustrations. The final resolution of their relationship is terribly sad and yet played with all the awkward evasiveness that such moments bring.
Hawking’s physical deterioration is shown in an equally grown up manner. There are genuinely chilling moments – such as when he is told that eventually no-one will hear him speak – balanced against the unexpected humour of seeing him chase his kids around in his wheelchair while pretending to be a Dalek. His scientific insights are conveyed with an almost fantastical beauty, perhaps suggesting this is as much a spiritual experience as Jane’s religion. Only towards the end, when he imagines himself miraculously able to walk again, does this approach lurch dangerously close to the cheesy.
Central to the film’s success is Eddie Redmayne’s astonishing performance as Hawking. His facial and bodily gestures brilliantly convey the experiences of a mind managing to express itself in a body that is shutting down. As the film reaches the point when Hawking writes A Brief History of Time and becomes a star in his own right, it feels as though Redmayne has metamorphosed into the man. The rest of the cast is strong too. Felicity Jones as Jane has a quality of inner strength and refusing to give up, tempered by a wistful regret for the things she can’t share with her husband. The musical score is rather beautiful without overwhelming the film in sentiment.
Ultimately, The Theory of Everything is a remarkable story of hope, compromise and the importance of trying.
In a word: Inspirational