Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, David Thewlis, Simon McBurney, Emily Watson
Director: James Marsh
Writer: Anthony McCarten
Last year I saw a documentary about Stephen Hawking which introduced me to his remarkable story. I was deeply moved by the extraordinary life that he has led and was very much looking forward to seeing his story realised in a dramatic form. However I do realise that a remarkable story does not necessarily make a remarkable film and shall attempt to assess this film based on its own merits. With that in mind, The Theory of Everything is in itself a rather moving film that admirably depicts the struggle of a man with a brilliant mind suffering from motor neurone disease and the struggle of his equally brilliant wife in her effort to support him.
The film starts off at Cambridge University in 1963 where an astrophysics student named Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and a literature student named Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) meet at a party. Stephen is shown to possess a very advanced mind and a keen thirst for knowledge as he reveals his greatest aspiration to be the search for the answer to life and existence. Jane meanwhile shows herself to be a very learned and cultured woman who is fascinated by Stephen’s intelligence but is not daunted by it as she challenges him on his dismissal of God’s existence. The two are smitten with each other and soon embark on a romantic relationship. The way this is done is a bit too romanticised for my liking (eyes meeting from across the room and all that), but the chemistry this couple shares is captivating and so I find myself willing to overlook this.
While this is happening Stephen starts showing the early signs of his disease as he has difficulties picking things up and stumbles slightly as he walks. He shrugs off these symptoms and attends a lecture on black holes which finally gives him the inspiration he needs to form a working theory about the creation of the universe. As he begins his pursuit of this theory he has an accident that leads him to visit the hospital. It is here that he receives his crushing diagnosis. Stephen is told that he has a degenerative disease that will deprive him of the control over his body and is given two years to live. Despite his attempt to push Jane away in order to spare her from pain and heartbreak, she finds out the truth and resolves to make the most of what little time they may have together. The rest of the film portrays the difficulties that Stephen’s disease brings to his work and marriage as he and his wife fight tooth and nail not to let his disease defeat them.
Eddie Redmayne delivers a breath-taking performance as Stephen Hawking both emotionally and physically. His portrayal of the effects of motor neurone disease on the way he walks, talks, looks and behaves are so convincing and so harrowing to watch that one often forgets that he is in fact an actor playing a part. He shows great conviction as Stephen in his effort not to let his condition prevent him from becoming one of the greatest minds in scientific study.Felicity Jones delivers a formidable performance as a woman struggling to cope with the life that she has chosen. She gives up her own ambitions so that Stephen might realise his as she dedicates herself to Stephen’s care and to raising their children. Jones depicts her character’s struggle with such heart and turmoil that it becomes all too apparent that this disease has just as heavy a toll on Jane as it does on her husband. Through Jane the film raises compelling questions about love and marriage and what exactly it means to love someone in sickness and in health.
It is often the case with biopics that the screenwriter and director merely attempt to recreate the key moments of the subject’s life, almost like a greatest hits compilation, without attempting any insight into the people themselves or what they did. The Theory of Everything is not one of those films. The director James Marsh and the screenwriter Anthony McCarten do not merely attempt to portray the struggle that this couple endured, they attempt to understand it by showing how it affected them. Stephen copes with the loss of his body by using the one resource that he still controls, his mind. He focuses all of his efforts onto his work so that he might do the one thing he knows he can do well and not allow himself to be limited by his disease. By doing so he neglects Jane who in turn must seek love and affection where she can find it, all the while never forgetting her duty and responsibility to her husband. This does not go unnoticed by Stephen, nor does he judge her for it.
The Theory of Everything is a wonderfully sensitive film that provides insightful reflections on these two characters and the marriage that they shared. It raises the challenges inherent with being unable to love someone or to be loved by their hearts’ desire. It depicts a powerful story of mind over matter. It provides an inspired and honest portrayal of a truly remarkable man and his remarkable life and marriage.