A remarkable life, such as that of legendary scientist Stephen Hawking, deserves a remarkable portrayal. The astronomer can rest easy in his iconic chair after the release of The Theory of Everything, which sees his life brilliantly realised by Eddie Redmayne; he delivers a performance worthy of the great man himself, and will surely be rewarded with consideration for the cinema world’s highest honour. The young British star is overwhelmingly good. He fully assimilates himself into his onscreen persona, a role whose veracity is never in question. From Hawking’s fully-functional Oxford youth to debilitating middle age and beyond, it’s a performance that necessarily manifests itself in the minutiae of facial expression, in the twitch of a cheek and the raise of an eyebrow, and of course those wild, insatiable eyes. They are a symbol for the great man’s resilience and thirst for life, an inner showcase of his battle against his own body, which Redmayne impossibly captures. When his eyes fill with water, so do ours.
The film takes as its source material Jane Hawking’s memoir ‘Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen’, (not Hawking’s own, decidedly less cinematic, ‘A Brief History of Time’), and the added focus on the relationship’s female part is a revelation. Despite being undeniably beautiful (played by the irresistible Felicity Jones) and intelligent, she strikes a tragic figure for the most part. She is the unappreciated devotee, dedicated to alleviating the mounting challenges of her husband’s Motor Neurone Disease. It’s a commitment she makes genuinely, but in the midst of her innocent, romantic youth, a position incapable of foreseeing the endless hours of housework and the menial tasks carried out in the shadow of her undeniably brilliant husband. She deserves huge credit for what she gives of her life to Stephen, which he seems to rarely give her, but she also deserves the right to a life of her own. Which he eventually, and reasonably, grants her.
In the mould of other growth-of-a-genius films (a la A Beautiful Mind), we have the youthful, fruition years at a prestigious university, the struggles for brilliance against balancing a ‘normal’ life, culminating in an illustrious hall full of adorning peers, applause reigning finally on our central subject, work vindicated, life affirmed. So far, so typical. But where The Theory of Everything adapts the formula, in addition to the special focus on Jane, is in the rendering of Stephen’s debilitating condition.
The film foregrounds bodies, making their most mundane actions appear miraculous – in Stephen’s eyes, which we are transposed into so effectively through Redmayne’s performance and Marsh’s sensitive direction, just raising cutlery to one’s mouth to eat dinner is an incredible feat. Hawking’s perseverance makes the audience thankful for what we have, even if it’s only conducting our bodies in a way that we have control over. It is of course a great cosmic joke that the man who redefined so much of our understanding of the universe, our collective exterior, struggles so much with what the vast majority find so easy. The first question Hawking asks post-diagnosis in The Theory of Everything is ‘What about the brain?’; not pausing to reflect on his body’s failings, instead savouring his essence, his true self. Marsh’s film posits a refutation of our bodies, their image and their failings, as defining who we are (as does Hawking’s life more widely). For a life and work so obsessed with what we can measure and prove, it is ironic that it prizes, above all, that which we cannot: the nebulous substance of human interaction, of insatiable desire, of the nurturing thirst for knowledge, and of unconditional love.
In addition to this wonderful counterpoint, the film features a heart-rending score from Jóhann Jóhannsson, which soars appropriately during the narrative’s peaks, capturing something of the nature of inspiration, even if it is an impression and not the artefact itself. The cinematography by Benoît Delhomme is sensitive and varied, taking us from the rustic warmth of 60s Oxonian halls and quads to the harsh, unforgiving light of the operating table with a beautiful expertise. The focus is often shallow, blurring figures in the distance, making the characters and their interactions immediate. We are forced to take each moment individually, each day as it comes, as Hawking is forced to in his unstable biological state. Overall, the film sutures us to Stephen so effectively, and so resoundingly, that it is hard not to be incredibly moved upon the narrative’s termination, which of course has the added emotional weight of truth. But even with this factor considered, it is a supremely affecting film in its artistry and extraordinary performances. Unconsciously, I barely moved during the duration, so natural did these characters seem, so genuine their torment, and so gratifying their enduring success. It is a wonderful film.