Already nominated for both Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards for their performances as the celebrated physicist (and motor neurone diesease sufferer) Stephen Hawking and his wife, Jane Wilde, it seems certain that Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones will also be recognised with Oscar nominations when they are announced next Thursday. The awards and accolades are richly deserved, for Redmayne and Jones are the best thing about The Theory of Everything, which tells the story of the Hawkings’ marriage and the effects of MND on their relationship.
Somewhat surprisingly, The Theory of Everything begins in the manner of a quirky romcom, in which the unlikely guy manages to win over the beautiful girl with a combination of intelligence and offbeat wit. However, if you look closely, you can see that, from the very beginning, signs of the disease that would later conquer Stephen’s body were there, in a knocked-over mug of tea or a dropped pencil. Even knowing that he might only have a matter of months to live, once she heard about the diagnosis Jane insisted she still wanted to marry Stephen, and The Theory of Everything demonstrates how difficult it was for her over the next thirty years, as she cared for her husband for the most part single-handedly, and also brought up three children.
Redmayne gives the performance of his career so far as Hawking. In the beginning, he’s the awkward student: floppy of fringe and gangly of limb. You can see him fizzing with ideas, yet he’s also directionless. Following the MND diagnosis, and faced with only two years to live, he becomes angry and disillusioned, pushing others away in frustration. But marriage to Jane brings some relief, and happiness, and Redmayne ensures that the charismatic Stephen who was clearly so attractive to Jane still lurks within. However, he also charts the breakdown of Hawking’s body through the ever more difficult and twisted movements of his own (particularly his hands and feet, which director James Marsh likes to document in close-up). Finally, in the later years when Hawking is reduced to speaking through a computer and can barely even more one finger, Redmayne – through the merest hint of a smile or glint in the eye – manages to portray Hawking’s intelligence and force of character.
While The Theory of Everything is arguably Redmayne’s film, Felicity Jones gives an equally brilliant performance. She exudes Jane’s inner strength, which is grounded in her deep Christian faith, and the determination you imagine her to have had such reserves of. The chemistry between the two leads prevents the film from becoming overly sentimental, though it comes perilously close to it at times. This occurs particularly in the second half, where family gatherings are filmed as if on a hand-held camera, tinged in sepia, with cloying music as accompaniment. The focus is also very much on Jane in the second half, and the sacrifices she has had to make. It shows her coming close to breaking point on more than one occasion, and, like Redmayne, Jones conveys the emotional strain wordlessly.
While the critics haven’t been shy in heaping praise on the two lead actors, they have also been quick to point out the film’s scientific inaccuracies, or complain that there simply isn’t enough science. I find this a little frustrating, for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s not as though The Theory of Everything is the first film ever made to take liberties with the facts (whether scientific, historical or otherwise). Secondly, the film is about the relationship between Stephen and Jane, not the science. The Theory of Everything is based on Jane’s revised memoir of her marriage to Stephen, and, while the science is of course a huge part of Stephen’s (and therefore Jane’s) life, the memoir is hers, and she wasn’t a scientist (though there is an interesting scene in the film where she describes the difference between quantum and theoretical physics by referring to peas and potatoes). Thirdly, does the general population want to see a film in which the complex theories of black holes, space and time are discussed in great, exact, detail? It’s hardly surprising that any discussion of such arcane concepts is kept to a minimum. Some have argued that the film doesn’t show the ‘awe of discovery’, yet I would disagree, and think what it does do is put forward the argument that it is the passion for discovery, knowledge and understanding, and a burning desire for answers that has kept Stephen Hawking alive for so long.
What is more interesting (to me) is what the film doesn’t include about Stephen and Jane’s relationship, given that this is what the filmmakers have decided to focus on. The first edition of Jane’s memoir painted a far darker portrait of Stephen’s character (she called him an ’emperor’ and a ‘puppeteer’, a man who refused to mention his illness and wouldn’t let her accept any outside help) and the hardships of their marriage. In the film, their marriage breakdown is shown to be quite friendly, with the couple even seeming to enter a sort of open relationship as Jane falls for her choirmaster and Stephen for his nurse (a brilliant cameo from Maxine Peake). The film glosses over their long period of estrangement, and instead focuses on their more recent reconciliation.
There is talk of a Redmayne-Cumberbatch contest in February for the Best Actor Oscar. It’s interesting that there are two films about tortured British scientists that are enjoying such great success at the same time (the other being The Imitation Game, in which Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing), but, having seen both, there’s no question in my mind that Redmayne gives the far better performance. Redmayne and Jones alone are enough for me to recommend The Theory of Everything, just don’t go expecting much about the physics. But then you wouldn’t, would you? It’s a film, after all.