It’s easy to be cynical about ‘big’ acting performances like the one Eddie Redmayne gives as Stephen Hawking in James Marsh’s biopic, particularly in instances where actors are portraying serious and debilitating diseases, but in truth it’s an excellent performance. Opposite Felicity Jones, who is also on top form as Hawking’s wife Jane, Redmayne immerses himself in a difficult role, and he, and the film, come out of it well.
The Theory of Everything is based on the memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen written by Jane Wilde Hawking, and so to an extent we are given things from her perspective; but not exclusively. Marsh takes things pretty much in a linear fashion – we join Stephen in his early years at Cambridge, where he meets Jane, an arts graduate, at a party. This sets the tone for the film: The Theory of Everything is a love story before it’s anything else. The science, despite the film’s title, takes a back seat for most of the runtime. Redmayne and Jones have an easy chemistry in these early scenes, and the film, with the exception of one or two intentionally jarring instances of foreshadowing, makes for genial company.
We see Stephen finding his niche in the science world, of course, partially guided by David Thewlis as physicist Dennis Sciama, but as motor neuron disease begins to ravage his body, the focus remains primarily on the relationship. The film isn’t particularly interested in trying to elucidate the science behind Hawking’s theories, except for a couple of sequences, but that’s perhaps to be expected, given the source material. It also isn’t necessary: the film works as the story of a marriage.
Jones does a great job of conveying Jane’s steely determination as she resolves to take care of Hawking as his illness worsens, but also the peeling away of this solidity as her husband goes on to live for decades rather than the short period first predicted. Into the middle of their relationship comes Jonathan, with whom Jane establishes an initially platonic relationship. This is another tough role, but one that Charlie Cox portrays with quiet dignity; just the right mix of charm and likability to prevent him becoming a cheap villain.
The physical transformation Redmayne undergoes as motor neuron disease attacks Hawking’s body is quite something – a visceral and affecting performance. But neither the film nor the performance ever fail to capture the wit and good nature of Hawking, alongside the brutality of the disease, and that’s a great compliment: perhaps as satisfying a tip of the hat to the real Hawking as could be made. The film, like its subject, refuses to be completely defined by the illness that plagues it.
There are occasional instances of sun-dappled grinning and ‘happy family’ montages which come across as slightly blunt when taken in light of the film’s overall tone, and there are one or two moments in which Hawking has internal revelations that are played slightly too literally – for instance, during some of the early scenes at lectures or in labs.
The film is well paced, guided by strong performances and the tones of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s lovely score. Marsh keeps everything in check – there’s very little in here that feels superfluous or indulgent, barring perhaps one b rief imagined sequence late on, which feels like an overstatement. But generally speaking, this is a very convincing and affecting portrayal of an important figure in modern science.