By Stephen Mayne @finalreel
Now in his 70’s, Stephen Hawking has spent half a century defying expectations. For a man given no more than a two year prognosis following diagnosis of motor neurone disease in 1963, he’s lived a life of astonishing achievement. It’s disheartening then, that The Theory of Everything chooses such a safely conventional route, never straying close to the boundaries Hawking continually pushes past. As much as it feels like a box ticking exercise though, James Marsh’s film ticks with panache, powered by two career defining performances at the centre.
The timespan is broad; moving through thirty plus years with first wife Jane Wilde Hawking, unsurprisingly so given the screenplay is adapted from her memoirs (by Anthony McCarten). From this source material, the bulk of the film falls on Hawking’s (Eddie Redmayne) illness and his relationship with Jane (Felicity Jones). The tone is that of romantic drama, scientific achievements confined to the occasional eureka moment complete with succinct visual cue. It may make for easier drama, but when he’s famous for overcoming physical limitations to emerge as a leading scientific figure, it seems perverse to jettison his life as a theoretical physicist.
This leads to the cinematically lazy trope of Hawking as the casual genius for whom inspiration strikes and great things rapidly follow. When presented with a series of impossible questions early on by his professor, Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis), he knocks them out at the last minute, far surpassing the efforts of his astonished classmates. The few moments of scientific achievement he’s allowed in the film are similarly brief, milk swirling in a coffee cup and the sight of a fire through the threads of his jumper enough for him to leap to great acclaim.
Step forward Stephen and Jane to occupy centre stage. A very British period romance surrounds their early exchanges, the pair meeting at a party and ending up, via a religious detour, at Stephen’s family home for Sunday roast. From here, their burgeoning relationship and growing family advance step by step with his illness that arrives first in jittery moments, and later with a sickening crunch on campus flagstones. Jane is left to hold it together, trying to care for children, an ever weakening Stephen, and work on her academic pursuits. It’s no surprise that lonely choir leader Jonathan (Charlie Cox) should become such vital support for the family, setting tongues wagging amongst relatives.
That The Theory of Everything gets away with side-lining so much of what makes Hawking special is down to Redmayne and Jones. Both have worked steadily in recent years, landing plum roles without ever suggesting leading status. How that’s changed. Redmayne is a revelation, physically transforming as his thin, reedy body is racked by disease. He plays hardship with an impish grin and not a hint of mawkishness, determination never far from the surface. It’s this childlike quality that merges so well with Jones’ performance, establishing him as partner in some ways and dependent in others. Jones’ clipped accent and buttoned up demeanour holds firm until she carefully undermines it, allowing glimpses of Jane’s mounting burden to break out.
Around this pair, Marsh and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme deploy a number of tricks to aid the story, not always successfully. They’ve crafted a handsome film of golden light and dimmed blue shadows, but it’s marked by a preoccupation with postcard shots. Hawking, captured from above, circles his chair against a garish gilt background, ascending spiral staircases trip into view and characters trip back out of focus, artfully blurred. It’s technically accomplished and artistically plain, high end period drama justifying its place in the cinema over evening television by virtue of a lavish visual approach.
Ultimately, it’s Redmayne and Jones who cement The Theory of Everything’s place on arthouse and multiplex screens alike. They plough straight through glossy period biopic conventions, adding heart to pretty surroundings. Thanks to them, efforts to invoke emotion are focussed and lasting. Thanks to them, this battle against adversity comes to life. Now if only the nagging feeling that such a remarkable life deserves more than this unremarkable approach would go away.
The film will be released on January 1st 2015