It has taken a great deal of time to get here but finally South Africans are able to watch director James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, a movie adapted by Anthony McCarten from the memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Wilde Hawking. Of course by now most know that Eddie Redmayne, who plays Stephen Hawking, picked up the Best Actor Oscar for his brilliant portrayal of the theoretical physicist. I think the last time I saw an actor able to embody someone with a physically debilitating condition so convincingly was Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, which shows how phenomenal Redmayne is here.
The Theory of Everything will appeal to many audiences with its mixed focus – that of part biopic and part love story; it does tend to favour the latter instead of a microscopic analysis of Hawking’s achievements though. And this is a good thing for this type of film. This offers a better narrative structure and allows us multiple points of view – for example his wife Jane Wilde (played brilliantly by Felicity Jones who was justifiably nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her efforts, as Hawking’s emotionally conflicted companion). With these two powerful leads the movie is carried along easily and convincingly for what feels like a very short two hours and will leave you with a warm fuzzy feeling at the end.
Like most biopics the story starts when Hawking is young (his younger self played by Tom Prior), before he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease. We see a very active young man, who enjoys dancing, tomfoolery with his buddies and is confident in his interactions with women (something he seems to have retained his whole life judging by the fact he’s been married three times). Here we see Hawking meet his future wife Jane. We then move a few years into the future to when Hawking is 21 and first learns of his condition, a condition the doctors say will kill him in just two years. The only thing that keeps him going is Jane who happens to be a student of poetry (quite the opposite of Hawking) and so seems to balance the cold logic of science with passion. Even with these life-altering hurdles in the way they do end up getting married of course and that is where most of the story takes place.
As Hawking’s physical condition slowly deteriorates, the strain on Jane is explored in quite a detailed manner, though with some things being a little obscured by only quickly touching on them. For instance, the Hawkings have a live-in nurse that Jane gets close to. Later in the real world she would go on to marry him, but in The Theory of Everything a possible already romantic attachment is all too briefly explored. One does get the sense at times that Marsh is treating some of the subject matter with kid gloves and rather focuses on the overall condition of struggling to cope.
As I said earlier Redmayne does a remarkable job of ‘being’ Stephen Hawking but the movie falls short of showing more of what was going on inside his head. While Redmayne is able to portray the frustration and anger that Stephen felt in a very convincing manner – which is simply amazing to watch, as for half of the film he is unable to move much more than his face and even that in a limited fashion – one does feel that more could have been done to explore and explain his motivations at times. For example his break up with Jane and subsequent meet up with his nurse are done in such close and quick succession that one is left wondering what actually happened – who made the decision, was it amicable? The Theory of Everything also spends little time looking at his scientific achievements, focusing only on his black hole/Big Bang origins and Hawking Radiation theories. As I said at the beginning, this is done because we are not watching a Discovery movie about science, we are watching a romantic biopic about an extraordinary man and it does a very good job at being just that.
The theory of Everything is a well directed and brilliantly acted story that explores the relationship of Stephen and Jane. Most people who haven’t read his memoir won’t be familiar with how he first coped with his disease, or of how Jane set up their life so that he could be most comfortable. Although the treatment of the story is a familiar one it still comes across as being fresh due to the rather superb directing of Marsh (what an eye for composition!) and will make you laugh and cry with joy. It does of course have its moments of sadness but this never really ventures into any dark territory, rather aiming to remain light and accessible (which is one thing that My Left Foot may not have been) to a wider audience. I’d recommend going to watch it not just for the convincing acting but for the interesting story of a man who is setting a new world record by just being alive another day and with the uplifting message of hope it’s a guaranteed two hours of entertainment.
Last Updated: February 26, 2015