2014 has been a great year for putting geniuses on screen. We’ve had the theories of Kip Thorne explored in blockbuster from in Interstellar, followed Alan Turing and the birth of computer science in The Imitation Game, and now we’re given the life story of arguably the most recognisable scientist of all time, Stephen Hawking. If there was ever a year to inspire cinemagoers to explore at least one realm of the sciences, it’s this one. And yet, in focusing so much on Hawking’s first marriage, The Theory of Everything has ambitions beyond the discussion of cosmology, and is in fact a very effective and affecting love story, anchored by two astonishing central performances.
We first meet Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) as he is about to start his PhD in Physics at Cambridge, attending the party where he meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). Their initially awkward, but eventually charming encounter leads to the most important relationship of Hawking’s life, a marriage ravaged by his Motor Neurone Disease. The opening scene of Hawking rapidly cycling to the party with his friend Brian (Harry Lloyd) is, given that the vast majority of audiences know what’s to come for him, genuinely tragic, as all the physical actions that we take for granted are ripped from Hawking in a very drawn-out process. The diagnosis and the disease are both heart-breaking and utterly terrifying, brought to life magnificently by Redmayne. His gradual physical transformation is an astounding piece of work, startling in its authenticity and visceral reality. Amazingly, Felicity Jones manages to be equally as good as her co-star. Whilst Redmayne’s performance is more traditionally showy and likely to win awards, the emotional honesty brought by Jones is profoundly moving and, as a double act, they elevate The Theory of Everything into a really great film.
This core relationship makes for 2014’s strongest love story. There’s an understanding between Stephen and Jane that feels very honest – he realises and accepts that he cannot fulfil all the duties of a husband whilst she cannot hide that his condition is too much to deal with on her own. This under-the-surface resentment feels earned rather than bitter, as we see Jane’s own PhD fall by the wayside of having to care for both her husband and her three children. Stephen himself can be obstinate and impossible, resorting at points to childish manipulation, and yet neither side is ever the ‘bad guy’ of a situation. Both of them are crushed by Motor Neurone Disease, a woman giving up her ambitions to help her family, and a genius who loses the ability to express himself. Coupled with the amazing acting, The Theory of Everything‘s story is properly moving, a romantic film for those who do not like romantic films.
Whilst not quite as engaging, the exploration of Hawking’s cosmological genius is also handled very well, managing to explain his core concepts in ways that a general audience can at least pretend to understand. Inspired by the Black Hole Theory of Roger Penrose (Christian McKay) and supported by his professor (David Thewlis), Hawking attempts to explain the very beginning of time. The fact that Stephen’s very atheistic theories and ideals are never played for cheap conflict against Jane’s Anglican leanings is admirable and Stephen’s eureka moments are all very ably directed by James Marsh.
Some of the characterisation does feel slightly whitewashed at points, particularly Jane’s second husband Jonathan (Charlie Cox), who is portrayed as a flawlessly lovely man, but that is to be expected when all the subjects of a biopic are still alive. However, this does not detract from what is an incredibly moving story led by two of they year’s finest performances. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones make The Theory of Everything absolutely essential viewing. Along with a very real relationship and some great direction in both the romantic and scientific halves of the film, this is yet another film to add to the list of 2014’s excellent biopics and, if nothing else, the opening half an hour will make you desperate to attend Cambridge.