Biographical films, even those about characters long deceased, seem to always find themselves under intense scrutiny; the veracity of the events and actions being depicted seemingly always subject to challenge and contradiction from all manner of parties. As such, The Theory of Everything is faced with the additional burden of depicting the life and times of a real life identity who is still very much alive, namely acclaimed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. What obligation filmmakers have for accuracy in such circumstances is cause for much conjecture and audiences should always expect that some licence has been taken for the purpose of narrative logic and brevity. In my experience, such films are best enjoyed by allowing yourself to forego any preconceived ideas you have about the characters. These are fiction films after all and should be experienced, evaluated and enjoyed (or not) on their merits as a piece of cinematic art. Yes, The Theory of Everything offers some insight into both Hawking’s experience living with Motor Neurone Disease, his ground-breaking theories on the creation of the universe and his relationships with family and friends, but more important than the accuracy of this version of events is the fact that it works as an engaging, well-made film anchored by a stellar lead performance from Eddie Redmayne.
Directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim), The Theory of Everything is based on the book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Hawking’s first wife Jane and, whilst the trailer and promotional material pitch the story as a great romance, any expectations of such will only lead to disappointment. I mean, yes, much of the film tracks the courtship and subsequent marriage between Stephen and Jane amidst the onset of the symptoms of his illness and his rise to prominence as one of the great minds of the science community, but it certainly doesn’t follow the ‘happily ever after’ trajectory that some will no doubt be expecting. Whilst there is a genuine love between these characters, the demands of Hawking’s illness, his growing celebrity and their conflicting views on religion create tensions between the pair.
When we first meet Hawking, he is a young, cocky and not-particularly-dedicated student for whom the work presents few challenges. When he meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) at a party, romance ensues and it is Jane who lures Hawking out of the mire of depression that engulfs him following his MND diagnosis. There is a dichotomy between Hawking’s growing stature amongst his peers and his shrinking physicality as he becomes confined to a wheelchair and ultimately unable to communicate without the aid of a device that translates written text into speech; the version of Hawking with which most people are familiar. There is nothing showy in Redmayne’s performance as he undergoes a remarkable physical transformation to capture the progressively worsening symptoms of this most debilitating affliction; all the while making Hawking an engaging, if not entirely likeable, character. Jones is also very good as Jane who, more than anybody or anything else, serves as the motivation for Hawking to defy medical assessments that predict a life expectancy of just two years. Surprisingly perhaps given that the film is based on her memoir, Jane is also presented as a flawed individual who finds herself struggling with the compromises she needs to make as a result of her marriage to a man who requires so much assistance with the things we tend to take for granted.
Making the switch from documentary to narrative drama, Marsh does a great job to shoehorn a story with so many elements into a very respectable running time without it ever feeling rushed or fragmented. Necessarily, the film offers some insight into Hawking’s theories in quantum physics and the acclaim that followed, but the story focusses more on the relationship between Stephen and Jane, which is understandable given the complexities of his postulations. The film trundles along at a rapid clip, but never at the expense of exposition. Whilst the various period settings seem faithful enough as the years whiz by, if there is one nod to inauthenticity it lies with the fact that Jane never really seems to age throughout the course of their 30-year marriage. With the likes of Emily Watson, David Thewlis and Simon McBurney confined to supporting roles, this is a two-hander for the most part with Redmayne and Jones carrying the burdens of their respective characters with considerable poise and presence.