In the wake of Christopher Nolan’s massive, space epic Interstellar; no film appears more relevant on the surface than James Marsh’s, The Theory of Everything, which chronicles the life of physicist Stephen Hawking, whose science plays an integral role in Nolan’s odyssey. But Marsh’s film is surprising in that it simply isn’t about science at all. Rather than following Hawking, played by the absolutely brilliant Eddie Redmayne, as he strives to prove that time has no beginning and no end, the film tells the heartwarming and heartbreaking tale of Hawking and his estranged wife, Jane Wilde, excellently portrayed by Like Crazy’s Felicity Jones. The film manages to be funny, challenging, and optimistic all at once, and is one of the rare biopics that truly gets it right.
The film opens as a young Hawking and Jane meet for the first time at a Cambridge University party. He is undoubtedly a little weird, but Jane seems to appreciate it rather than detest it. As their courtship is seemingly headed toward the next level, Hawking begins to develop difficulties completing motor activities, and a hard fall leaves him in hospital and with a diagnosis that will change his life forever. He has a motor neurone disease, now widely known today as ALS, which doctors predict will give him only two more years to live.
At first I thought Marsh was a little heavy handed in his introduction of the disease. Its inclusion in the early scenes was perhaps a little distracting, but as the film goes on, and it becomes clear that the film is about Jane and how she handles his worsening condition rather than physics, it comes together rather nicely.
Jane boldly decides to continue their relationship, despite Stephen’s condition, and while at first Stephen is able to proceed somewhat normally, things naturally take a turn for the worse as Hawking outlasts his initial death sentence. The pair naturally moves apart, with little resentment on either end. Jane finds comfort in Jonathan (Charlie Cox), the local choir director and friend to the family, and Stephen develops feelings for his nurse, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake). But, as evidenced by their constant contact even after the dissolution of their marriage, it is obvious that Stephen will always love Jane very much, and he has the utmost gratitude for her sticking with him all those years.
It’s truly heartbreaking, as you watch a perfect couple torn apart by a disease that neither of them have any control over. But Redmayne’s Hawking is never bitter, and his ability to bring an undeniable charm and humour to the film despite the physical handicap of his character is pure mastery. There has already been significant awards season buzz for Redmayne, and deservedly so, he completely disappears into the character and keeps the film light enough to sustain you in its times of darkness. Jones is exceptional as Jane, and the pair manages to keep the pace throughout the film despite exclusively sharing the screen for the vast majority of the film’s runtime.
James Marsh expertly directs the film, subtly progressing through Stephen’s disease and constantly projecting a sense of optimism that carries through the film’s end credits. Rather than creating a straight forward cradle to the grave film, The Theory of Everything uses Hawking’s relationship with Jane as a unique storytelling device and means of keeping time that allow his scientific triumphs to come across as sidebars, and it is this reserved direction that makes the film truly exceptional.
The Theory of Everything is in UK cinemas on 2 January 2015