To take a man’s life and dilute it down to a 123-minute biography might not be quite as daunting a task as coming up with a singular formula that describes and unites all things in the universe but it is not without its challenges. James Marsh takes on these theoretical hurdles with the problem-solving gusto of a seasoned mathematician. He attacks from all angles: emotional, intellectual, spiritual and metaphysical; delivering a film that not only gets to the core of who Stephen Hawking is but gives equal credence to the unsung plight of wife Jane Hawking. With Marsh working the material with the finesse of a Swedish masseuse – adapted from Jane’s 2008 memoirs “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen” – into something both uproariously funny and endlessly emotional, The Theory of Everything is, like its subject, a film that defies the constructs to which it ought adhere. Like Hawking, Marsh has created a film that rises above the expectations placed on it and outlives its macabre sentencing. It is quite simply an emotional powerhouse; a near flawless example of a fine-tuned biopic boasting a performance for the ages; a stunning tour de force that overcomes its crowd-pleasing elements with earnest wit and genuine, hard-won emotionality.
Behind his quirked smile and mop of ginger-brown hair, young Hawkings is a goon and Eddie Redmayne plays him with the breezy charm of a Powerpuff before his infamous affliction strikes. Aloof and smarmy, his performance is one of spot-on precision; a testament to Redmayne’s emerging talent and ability to replicate a character with physical and emotional exactitude. Hawking is a Type-A smarty pants who doesn’t study but still aces the tests and all Redmayne needs to do is cock a wormy grin to communicate the limitless knowledge trapped within that scrawny frame. Part-Goofy and part-Einstein, he’s a goober of a scholar with a heart of gold and aspirations over the moon. And there lies Jane Wilde, a wily co-ed softly won over by Hawking’s gun show of braininess and obsessively chartered persistence. After all, one can only be asked to croquette so many times before they finally submit.
There’s a delightfully stagy homecoming ball that, while slightly hokey, showcases the humanity before the affliction; the affair preceding the infirmity; the courtship preceding all this trials and tribulations business. Hawking uneasily admitting he’s no dancer is both charming and heartbreaking – a winning equation graciously prescribed to most key junctions in the film. If Hawking’s arc is one into physical oblivion and intellectual transcendence, The Theory of Everything‘s is about overcoming hardship and finding peace in adversity.
But as the scene sets on Benoît Delhomme‘s magnificently sweltering starematography, Cinderella’s carriage turns to a pumpkin and Hawking is hit with the heavy news that he’s got less than two years to live. On the brink of his PhD and brimming with grand ideas screaming out to be proven, Hawking is a pitiable mark of the Maggie Fitzgerald degree. He’s a fighter with a flunkie body. Though Jane’s undying devotion to Hawking isn’t necessarily fleshed out in full pre-ALS diagnosis, Jane spends the rest of the movie convincing us of the earnestness of the near angelic gesture. This is after all a love story.
As acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking continues to hunt down his titular theory of everything, we’re given a glimpse into a kind of personal reactionary spiritualism that only peeks its head into the oeuvre of film every so often. There’s no “this is the way it is”, just a lot of “what ifs?” Hawking at first refutes the existence of God. At one point, he admits to Jane that He could be plausible. Later, he’s weary and generally indifferent. He’s a character who, though stubborn in his resolve and thrust for intellectual expansion, is never adamant about being “right.” And what could be a more important figure than a man willing to go to war with his own theories? In a time of steadfast absolutism, Hawking waged war with himself from an armchair. And then a wheelchair. A man both fundamentally hubristic and humbled, Hawking’s acute generosity of spirit paired with his occasional callousness towards those closest to him helps to make him such a scrumptiously compelling character.
It takes a skilled filmmaker to get the tear ducts working early and Marsh is so queued into fine tuning our emotional clock that he barely has to breathe to twist the knife in our side. Only thirty-odd minutes into the film, he pulls back the curtain on this whole diagnosis drama sans a lick of sentimentality and yet still beckons showers of sniffles. Hawking (understandably) throws a pity party, but Marsh never does. Flipping the formula on its head, he mines tragedy in humor, allowing the most heart-rending moments to play over beats drenched in legitimate dark comedy. Even past the ability to speak, Redmayne invites guffaws that you would never even expect to experience in a film about a handicapped physicist. This guy is going to sarcastically flip his head into an Academy Award nomination.
The performance really is next level. He’s so good, he’s gorilla glue. Taking your eyes off his work for even a moment is impossible. You might as well be eyelidless Alex, you’re watching him so hard. Confined to a wheelchair for the later half of the film, we nevertheless view him through the filter of abject understanding. Without words, he’s able to communicate novels. It’s a testament to both Redmayne’s mighty take and Marsh’s voyeuristically watchful eye that once Hawking’s words turn into blinks and eventually into robotic responses, we never lose a dollop of interest in him as a character. Nor does he lose his bite as a comedian.
Matching Redmayne blow for blow is Felicity Jones, offering a performance that delivers nuance, pathos and barrels of complexity. Though no simple task to take on the mantle of Hawking, Redmayne’s task is clear cut. Jones on the other hand has an arguably more difficult mountain to climb; she must make Hawking’s counterpart as compelling and complex as a guy who wrote a best selling novel about f*cking time. I mean seriously, if the guy can make a theory about time (of all things) into a New York Times best seller, you better believe his woman is a certifiable magnet.
Each and every scene she flutters into and out of, Jones is a force to be reckoned with. She’s left to grapple with the plight of domesticity; to battle the oft ferocious tedium of raising a family single-handedly. Jones parries with Redmayne’s monstrous portrayal with bravado, providing a fulcrum point that grounds the extenuating circumstances of their extraordinary home life into something relatable and “normal.” He’s the scientist, she’s the soul. It’s her that makes everything relatable.
At one point, she explodes, “We’re not a normal family!” And while we know that she believes this sentiment to be true, her family – and her relationship with Stephen’s – was never defined by a conformity to society norms. From the get go, their romance was a harbinger of bucked normalcy. Not just anyone would marry a ticking time bomb. It’s upon her shoulders that the success of Theory rests and Jones handles her characters transformation with a kind of poetic ease that’s stoic and touching, motherly and equally sexual. She’s basically Imhotep the way she gains layers scene to scene. An Academy Award nomination is assuredly in store.
What’s possibly the biggest surprise of The Theory of Everything is just how winning every aspect of Marsh’s tale truly is. It functions on so many levels, attacking so many sectors of what we look for in a film. It’s futile to resist its supreme good taste.
Marsh spares us the gory details of how time actually works (new homework assignment: read “A (Brief) History of Time”) but thanks to adroit editing work from Jinx Godfrey, we’re never really worried about how it works. It just does. Add to that a nimble and whimsical score from Jóhann Jóhannsson (another nomination ought to be assured here) and nifty costume design from Steven Noble and you have a film whose technical aspects rival its visceral impact. There are bits and bobs that don’t measure up – grainy “camera footage”, underdeveloped secondary characters – but for a movie equally given to quirks, quacks and quarks, the bumbling never detracts from the charm. Marsh’s brief history of Hawkings is at once timely and timeless, matching intellect for emotion and absolutely thriving on two stunning performances. For all the accolades it’s destined to receive, The Theory of Everything is deserving.