The Theory of Everything (2014)
Dir: James Marsh
5 Academy Award Nominations: Leading Actor (Eddie Redmayne), Leading Actress (Felicity Jones), Best Picture, Original Score, Adapted Screenplay.
I can’t help but think that there’s a fundamental issue with watching a real-life love story that you know ended in infidelity and divorce, however that doesn’t change the fact that this is a masterful film with great performances about a fascinating couple.
Based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s book, written about her life with scientist Stephen Hawking from when they met at university, married and started a family all as he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and his health declined while still struggling to keep working on his research and writing. As it’s based on Jane’s book I was maybe expecting the focus to be more on her and her perspective of what life with him was, yet the film often breaks away from her and follows him for things that she’s not present for, therefore really trying to be a film about them as a pair, dividing and often switching the focus between the two leads. I think that either one could have a whole film about them though, and maybe this should have been hers.
Interestingly, the film is based on the revised (and even retitled) edition of Jane’s book, published after she and Stephen managed to develop a good friendly relationship years after their divorce, and that definitely comes across as it’s quite an affectionate depiction of him and their life together which is maybe not what you might expect from an ex.
Stephen Hawking is of course still alive, and a very well-known figure especially recently with things like his appearances on ‘The Big Bang Theory’, through which he has shown a real sense of humour and optimism, and that comes across well in the film, it’s even what I heard the director James Marsh stating in an interview, that he wanted to flood the film with light and a sense of optimism, as that’s the way that Jane and Stephen are when you meet them.
In all interviews they have pointed out that the film is a love story not a biopic, but I think it’s hard to stay out of the realms of biopic when you’re covering this material, shedding light on somewhat lesser known history of the period around Stephen Hawking’s diagnosis and his notable early work. In terms of it being a love story, things do indeed essentially start with their meeting, and quickly within their first few times together Jane is thrown straight in at the deep end, even having Sunday dinner with his family. However to cover the scope of their whole marriage the film skips through some bits covering them only briefly. It seems to me that in parts the director wants to be able to have a different focus. If it were called a biopic, would it be one of her or him? It really should be more of one or the other, because with such interesting characters either one of them could have a whole two hours focused and it be fully engaging.
For example, Jane’s superbly strong both physically and emotionally to cope with the rapid changes, including Stephen’s health, and the birth of 3 children. She put her own studies on hold to care for him and the family, and that clearly took a toll, some of which is shown though maybe not to the full extent. Felicity Jones is really wonderful in the role, and apparently her depiction met with approval from Jane Wilde Hawking who thought she captured her very accurately.
Then there’s Eddie Redmayne as Stephen, and he is superb. He gives such a physical performance, though it looks like he’s just sitting quite still, the contortions and effort involved was very hard for him to do and it’s incredible how much he resembles Hawking, while being sure that he doesn’t make the performance come across as pitying or cloying, but rather just determined to convey a real sense of the man himself. Redmayne researched both Hawking and his condition, ALS, in great detail and worked hard to convey the progression of the disease with great accuracy. He shows signs of little stumbles and awkward hand movements right from the beginning. He also displays wonderful emotional complexity through scenes where Hawking was given a 2 year life expectancy, and though we as an audience know very well that he lives far beyond that it is still incredibly effecting. Eddie Redmayne fully deserved to win the Golden Globe for his performance, and I think he’s likely to win the Oscar for it too.
The director has a filmography that includes some highly acclaimed documentaries, and that background shows in the desire to get details across, with lots included in the story. Besides the health problems and academic work, a complex family drama develops when Jane falls in love with a choir master who is now her husband. Some time is given to this element of their story, and in fact only the last half hour of the film brings in Hawking’s famous speech machine. However, I don’t think enough focus is given to their marital difficulties, especially if you’re going to categorize the film as a love story more than just being a biopic of Stephen Hawking. Really, there are a number of times it touches on much bigger and deeper issues that it hasn’t the time or inclination to fully develop, which is often a critique of documentaries, that they don’t always ask the questions that you want them to, let alone find the answers.
The film is lovely to watch though, being shot in some amazing locations, especially the fantastic interiors. The sense of ‘Britishness’ abounds, and it’s one of the reasons why it has done so well with Academy nominations, as all the popular elements are there. Powerful performances including disability, beautifully shot, even the strong British identity with Emily Watson’s character (who incidentally hardly says or does a thing sadly) being told that she’s uttered the “Most English thing someone has ever said” are all features that regularly do well with Oscar voters.
There have already been a handful of films made about Steve Jobs, so I fully expect there will be more films to follow about Hawking, this isn’t really one though at times it belies its ‘love story’ aims by showing that it really wants to be much more than that. Essentially it’s only a matter of time until there is another biopic of him*, this could have been one dedicated to Jane as she’s fully deserving of two hours better focused on her experience. I still think that this is a great film, as it does pull together a number of strong elements with a fascinating true story as the backbone, and often that’s a key to Oscar glory, so maybe it will be again this year.
*Interestingly, Benedict Cumberbatch who is also a nominee in the ‘Best Actor’ category at the Oscars, up against Eddie Redmayne, played Stephen Hawking in a BBC film in 2004.