How should one go about making a biopic of Stephen Hawking? A physicist generally accepted as being one of the most brilliant scientific minds of our time. Someone frequently cited as one of, if not the smartest men on the planet. Yet a man who’s spent the majority of his life suffering from motor neuron disease that’s left him almost entirely paralysed. His is a situation that would be hard to sell in a fictional context. I’m sure there’s more than one viable answer to my initial question, and The Theory of Everything isn’t even the first film about Hawking, we already have Errol Morris’s 1992 documentary A Brief History of Time and the BBC film Hawking. However, Theory attempts to cover almost all of Hawking’s adult life, and in doing so winds up focusing primarily on his three decade relationship with his first wife Jane Wilde.
In fact, the film is just as much a biography of Jane as it is of Stephen; tellingly it’s adapted from her memoir and begins as she meets him. Throughout it alternates between taking her perspective and his, an approach that attempts to give an impression of the bigger picture, but left me wondering if might have been better off focusing squarely on one or the other.
We meet Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) as he’s a young PhD student in Cambridge in the early sixties. We get the general gist of his life there, he’s smart but lazy, he coxes on a rowing team, and likes croquet and Wagner. His first interactions with Jane (Felicity Jones) are quite rom-com like with his awkward statements only emphasising their differences, he’s pursuing science, she’s studying European poetry, he’s an atheist, she’s a devout church-goer. However their courtship proceeds in a watchable if unremarkable fashion as they gradually fall for one another.
This is all leading up to the fateful moment when he collapses in the courtyard, he’s taken to hospital, diagnosed with ALS, and given 2 years to live. I find it virtually impossible to judge anyone on how they might react to a situation like this, but his is to retreat from everyone and reject Jane. She stands firm though, embracing him and his condition. Soon they are married with children, as his condition worsens.
The majority of The Theory of Everything concerns itself with portraying the Hawkings’ family life, and the increasing burden Stephen’s disability places on Jane. Caring for him becomes more and more of a struggle for her as he gradually loses all mobility and eventually his voice. Friction is inevitably created when she meets a widowed choirmaster (Charlie Cox) who later becomes more involved with the family.
It would be unfair to label The Theory of Everything ‘conventional’ as a romantic drama, but it’s differences stem from the fact that it involves someone with a serious disability, not someone who’s a scientific genius. The film relegates Hawking’s scientific achievements to the sidelines the whole way through. It’s manner of conveying his intellect is by the numbers; first he solves some very difficult problems for his professor (David Thewlis), then later he impresses a senior Soviet physicist at a lecture. The time dedicated to science in the film is minimal, it has little interest in communicating just what his ideas were. There are a couple of brief moments where he and others discuss them using either a chalkboard or food items but these are simplistic. It falls into the typical biopic trap of relying on the audience’s foreknowledge of its subject’s achievements to be impressed by them. And in terms of movie biopics, ‘conventional’ is a very suitable term to describe The Theory of Everything.
One aspect that’s undoubtedly strong though, is Redmayne’s performance. He’s not an actor who’s remotely impressed me before but his work here is outstanding. He manages to portray Hawking’s worsening physical condition in a completely convincing manner, yet still communicate the emotions he must have felt within. It’s remarkable how much he’s made to look like Hawking too; this film has some of the best ageing make-up I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s true his role hits almost all of the awards bait targets; a familiar real life figure, a disability requiring a physical transformation, a triumph over adversity, but it’ll be hard to complain much when he receives a multitude of award nominations. He’s got a solid supporting cast around him too, Jones may well be an A-lister in waiting and also convincingly goes through many years of Jane’s life, while Cox deserves a mention for always keeping Jonathan a likeable and relatable presence despite his uneasy position in their relationship.
From a filmmaking standpoint The Theory of Everything boasts enough handsome cinematography and memorable visuals to rise above the potential televisual nature of it’s story. It neatly edits through the passage of time by cutting between related key moments, and occasionally utilising home-video style montages. I couldn’t help but think that director James Marsh (of the innovative Man on Wire) could have done a bit more with the material though. It does manage to hit some emotional notes towards the end, which are undoubtedly enhanced by the piano based score from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Prisoners).
The Theory of Everything tries to tell the entire story of Stephen Hawking through his relationship with his first wife. While we learn plenty about his domestic life, it barely scratches the surface of his scientific achievements, which will surely be his true legacy. What we’re left with is a very ordinary film about an extraordinary man.