After seeing this new biopic charting the marital and academic life of Professor Stephen Hawking, the pre-eminent scientist and author on the subject of time and black holes, I thought of last year’s Dallas Buyers Club and its subject Ron Woodroof. The lives of Texan hustler Woodroof and Cambridge graduate Hawking appear to be poles apart at first glance, but there are connections that exist between the two men, and the two high profile films about them: both are diagnosed with terminal diseases and given a finite time to live, for example, and both stories chart their respective triumphs in proving their doctors wrong; Woodroof managed more than 2,500 days after being told he would die from an AIDS-related illness within a month, while Hawking is still alive today after hearing in the mid-1960s that he had motor neuron disease, and a mere two years left.
The frustrations caused by life with these two illnesses make for engrossing and moving drama. In Dallas Buyers Club Woodroof is exasperated by the actions of the US government’s Food and Drug Administration, while in The Theory Of Everything different types of frustration resulting from Hawking’s physical disability are shared by the scientist and his first wife Jane Wilde Hawking. Both films follow a conventional storytelling path, with the peaks and troughs experienced during the protagonists’ lives alternating in a clinical, metronomic fashion; this reveals a compliance with certain biopic norms, honed for decades by others in order to ensure mass appeal, as viewers’ emotions are manipulated by contrasting scenes of joy and tragedy.
In both cases the films are worth seeing, first and foremost, for the quality of acting on display, though both are well-made and deserve praise for other reasons, even if the bittersweet journey we embark upon as viewers feels all too familiar. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won Academy Awards for their acting in Dallas Buyers Club, and Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones will presumably both be nominated this year for their performances here, as Stephen and Jane Hawking. Redmayne’s consistent and highly-physical performance is a revelation, while Jones effectively captures Jane’s turmoil as the couple’s love for each other gradually diminishes, attempting to reconcile her burgeoning love for helper and choirmaster Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox) with her sense of duty toward Stephen and their children.
Based on Jane Hawking’s second memoir about her life with Stephen, Travelling To Infinity, and adapted by Anthony McCarten, James Marsh’s film begins by detailing their meeting at Cambridge University in the early 60s. As a young student Redmayne’s Hawking is shy and awkward, but impish and witty when comfortable, and the actor foreshadows the later wheelchair-bound life of the scientist by adopting certain postures as his salad days go by. The picturesque university setting is used as you would expect, with The Backs and other famous views serving as backdrops while Stephen and languages student Jane meet and fall in love. Depending on your outlook you might well be moved by their first kiss on the beautifully-lit Bridge Of Sighs, but you might just as easily roll your eyes toward the many black holes above us as a boat full of punting students conveniently enters the frame at the same moment; however this entire sequence – which takes in a traditional May Ball prior to the lip-landing – is technically very impressive, particularly with regard to the lighting. (Interestingly both Stephen and Jane Hawking appeared on set for the first time, independently even though they remain on good terms, during the filming of this crucial scene.)
The film is shot by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, who did fine work a decade ago on The Proposition, and he captures a series of Cambridge-based images – firework displays, refraction of light, turning bicycle wheels, swirling coffee – that all allude to Hawking’s later work on space and time. His camerawork is otherwise pleasantly unobtrusive, and he makes good use of the browns and greens that colour university life via the typical clothes and interiors (pubs, classrooms, labs and offices) of the 1960s and 1970s, gradually desaturating to reflect the film’s change in tone as Hawking’s illness takes hold.
At Cambridge, under the tutelage of cosmology professor Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis, a safe pair of hands, and now resembling his old Harry Potter co-star Alan Rickman), Stephen shows signs of brilliance, tempered by an apparent clumsiness that is later revealed to be the onset of motor neurone disease. There’s something predictable about the academic scenes, from the star pupil effortlessly outshining everyone else in the tutorial group to the sudden proclamation of his brilliance by three of the finest minds in his field, but I guess if anyone deserves such a cinematic treatment it is Hawking, given that he is a bona fide genius. The screenplay attempts to grapple with some of the professor’s ideas but, understandably with audiences and profits in mind, ditches the more complex maths and physics, and concentrates on matters of love (though within the relationship at hand the nature of Stephen Hawking’s work, coupled with Jane Hawking’s faith, ensures a series of brief and mutually-frustrating theological discussions from their first conversation onwards).
As Stephen’s condition worsens Jane sacrifices her own studies and career to care for her husband and, eventually, their children. Stephen’s struggle to control his movement and speech intensifies and, in one heartbreaking scene, he is watched by first son Robert as he attempts to drag himself up a flight of stairs; eventually he is forced into a wheelchair, a milestone of sorts later matched by the introduction of the Equalizer speech program, which gives the professor his electronic American voice. The film is respectful but unflinching in the way it examines Professor Hawking’s physical deterioration, never losing sight of the cruel irony that one of the world’s greatest intellects is at times as helpless as a newborn baby, and Redmayne’s work in capturing the anguish that such a disease can cause is admirable.
The film suggests the increasing pressure on Jane, with three children and Stephen to care for, as a catalyst for the eventual break-up of their marriage. Stephen’s insistence on not employing a full-time live-in carer is partly for financial reasons – this part of the story takes place before he writes A Brief History Of Time – but eventually the aforementioned widower Jonathan enters their lives to help out. Jane and Jonathan’s mutual attraction is stymied as a result of their joint devotion to the church and their belief in the sanctity of marriage, though after a tracheotomy Stephen meets nurse Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), who would eventually become his second wife. The cast – particularly Felicity Jones – handles this love quadrangle well, benefitting from the maturity of McCarten’s script, which thankfully avoids histrionics and teacup-throwing. Instead there are uncomfortable, understanding glances, resigned looks, and eventually a painful acceptance that happiness lies elsewhere.
It’s easy to sympathise with all of the characters and their situation, particularly as a result of the commanding performances, and despite being fully aware that your buttons are constantly being pushed The Theory Of Everything will likely cause the hardiest of souls to shed a tear or two; indeed Stephen Hawking reportedly cried when he watched the film for the first time. Yet, like Dallas Buyers Club, it is also a life-affirming and uplifting film. The decision to follow the conventional, linear path much-loved by biopic makers has been criticised, with the ending the first bold attempt to marry the centrality of the concept of time to Professor Hawking’s work with the structure and editing of the film, but though it feels ‘safe’ I think James Marsh – previously best known for the documentaries Project Nim and Man On Wire – has made a wise choice. There will be plenty of angry voices shouting in the wind about yet another unspectacular and predictable Working Title release but, crucially, the chosen format allows for the full crippling extent of Hawking’s illness to be clearly understood by the viewer, as well as the gradual buildup of unhappiness that resulted in the marriage ending. The recent release of The Imitation Game, regarded by many as a similar work on account of its period setting, subject matter and central acting performance, perhaps highlights the presence of a formulaic approach but The Theory Of Everything is worth your time and your money nonetheless, not least for the performances of Redmayne and Jones. Unfortunately notable actors such as Thewlis, Emily Watson and Simon McBurney are a touch underused, though the latter pair provide a touch of familial tension and warmth respectively.
Directed by: James Marsh
Written by: Anthony McCarten, based on a work by Jane Wilde Hawking
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Simon McBurney
Running Time: 123 minutes