You can tell it’s January. You step out in the morning and you can see your breath. When the sun starts setting on a clear afternoon the light is almost blinding. And the British prestige pictures are stepping out ready for BAFTA season. In fairness, they’ve been slowly trotting out for a couple of months now. First there was Timothy Spall’s turn as, err, Turner in, err, Mr Turner. Then Benedrill Humblesnatch caused his usual venerate stirs as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. And now The Theory of Everything, directed by James Marsh, sees Eddie Redmayne stepping into the intimidating shoes of genius-in-our-lifetime Professor Stephen Hawking. It’s a biopic that offers its star the opportunity to portray the traumas of serious illness, to capture the essence of an identity behind the celebrity, and also to walk (and then wheel? glide?) through a significant share of the man’s lifetime. Years pass here as they tend to in biopics, allowing Redmayne to get to grips with a complete character. This isn’t just BAFTA bait; the entire awards season just had to rearrange it’s underwear.
It’s very easy to be cynical about this sort of thing. There’s an assumption that films of this ilk are made scrupulously to collect statues, and The Theory of Everything has its share of gloss, undeniably. But it’s built as a crowd pleaser. It’s there for the audience. And on those terms it’s a very generous film and an exceedingly successful one. Marsh knows this. His last was the quietly great Shadow Dancer; a chilly political thriller which made few concessions to an audience’s comfort. He’s shown himself adaptable here by stepping into very different material with different concerns and playing to those strengths.
The tone is struck almost immediately by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s buoyant score. As a young Hawking cycles to Cambridge the music lifts and lilts and soars triumphantly and tells us a lot about the movie we’re about to see. Knowing what most of us know about Hawking, there are inevitable beats that The Theory of Everything is bound to cover, but it’s the approach that Marsh gets to determine. If anything Jóhannsson’s music is the film’s biggest concession to fluff and melodrama. It guides the viewer a bit too keenly. Yet from the off we know the level Marsh and the script by Anthony McCarten are playing for; serious but not too serious; inspirational but (mostly) not mawkish.
If you’re interested in Hawking’s hard science then this isn’t going to be the movie for you. Tellingly, The Theory of Everything is based on the memoirs of his wife Jane (played here by Felicity Jones). As such this film places their relationship front and centre. It begins with it. In a very real sense, it ends with it. This is, first and foremost, a love story, one steeped in pragmatism, hope and against-the-odds survival. The Theory of Everything is seen in large chunks from Jane’s perspective. It helps to balance one of the genre’s usual failings; tunnel-vision obsession with the central figure. Jones is as much the lead here as Redmayne, though his transformative performance is likely to reap much of the praise.
And it is extraordinary. He’s a great fit for Hawking. The physical resemblance is satisfying. But once the debilitating effects of motor neuron disease start taking hold of Hawking, it is remarkable how Redmayne adapts his body to meet the needs of the performance. Marsh milks these initial stumbles for some wince-inducing moments as Hawking starts losing his coordination. As someone who’s had a history of dislocations, I was flinching in my seat at every potential twist or tumble. Yet what lingers the most about the film’s first act is the flush of young love against the rose-tinted backdrop of Cambridge. There’s a shameless Hollywood gloss to these scenes that makes the difficult journey ahead seem quite cruel. The bauble of their romance.
Jane’s commitment to Stephen proves her love for him; his initial desire for her to break away from him shows his concern for her; that she not be tethered to his downfall. The initial diagnosis is that he’ll survive just two years. Of course, Hawking surprised everyone. Their journey together through those years isn’t played as a morose struggle – this is not the hand-wringing emotional punishment that other filmmakers may have handed us. Instead it is presented as a unique journey taken by two – then three, then four, then five – people. Theirs is a relationship. Marriage. Parenthood. Albeit augmented by a unique set of challenges, not just those presented by Hawking’s illness.
Enter Jonathan (Charlie Cox), a third-party from Jane’s church whose intent is to provide assistance as Hawking’s condition worsens and their family expands. His is arguably the most psychologically intriguing of all of the characters presented to us. The changing dynamic within the family maintains that level of engagement where other biopics run the risk of merely cliff-noting; this happened then this happened then this happened. Jonathan is something of a wildcard. This was certainly a side of Hawking’s life I knew nothing about. This in turn is then mirrored by the arrival of yet more outside assistance from professional carer Elaine (Maxine Peake). The love story mutates. These changes keep the film feeling alive.
At the end of the day The Theory of Everything idolises Hawking as much as Jane clearly did. And on those terms, yes, the film is guilty of pampering it’s subject. The decision to perhaps slightly soften the edges of the reality here make it an easy ride for the audience, smoothing over the banal daily struggles that those of us who take our health for granted fear when we consider living with a condition such as Hawking’s. But that he lived through them all and flourished and became what he is – a living legend and pioneer – is worth celebrating. Marsh’s approach is a fanfare for the human spirit, for determination, for creativity and for thinking outside the box, even if he colours comfortably within the lines. The result is colourful indeed.