Stephen Hawking has always been something of an elusive figure to me. Sure, I’m aware of his incredible achievements (at least the little I can understand about them), and feel terrible about the sheer hardship he’s had to endure through his Lou Gehrig’s disease, but I’ve always felt oddly disconnected from him. I can’t imagine this is entirely uncommon considering just how much of an intellectual titan he is, so the primary job of ‘The Theory of Everything’ is to humanize such a larger than life figure. Sometimes biopics do this in spectacular fashion, and other times they fall flat on their face.
The story begins with a young Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) studying physics at Cambridge under Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis), although to be honest, he seems to be more focussed on pursuing Jane (Felicity Jones), a devoutly religious young lady he meets at a party and falls hard for. Everything seems to be coming up roses, until Steve takes a tumble that knocks him out, and ends up finding out that he has the debilitating Lou Gehrig’s disease, which the doctor predicts will kill him in two years. While the devastated Steve at first tires to cut the people closet to him out to finish a revolutionary theory he’s working on before he passes, Jane, completely smitten with him, commits to taking care of him for however long he has left.
If there’s anything that needs to brought up right off the bat about this film, it’s the absolutely superb performance by Eddie Redmayne as Hawking. This comes as a particularly pleasant surprise to me, as I was not impressed with his work at all in Les Miserables, but does he ever make up for it here. Right off the bat, he infuses Hawking with a charmingly awkward charismata that is simply infectious, which makes his submersion into the physical and mental limitations of the illness absolutely heartbreaking. However, even in the his darkest moments, we never loose the sense of his optimism and intelligence. It’s simply amazing how much he gets across with a simple shift of his eyes or twitch of his lips. It’s one of the absolute best portrayals of a disabled individual that I have ever seen on film, never feeling like an actor mugging to take advantage of a disability for awards attention, and Redmayne deserves all the praise in the world for it.
Felicity Jones also does the best work of her career here as the endlessly determined and caring Jane. She sells each and every moment of hardship as she tries to build a family around this deeply wounded individual who she loves so much, and her conflict and heartache only becomes more potent once an attractive choir director (played with wonderful subtlety by Charlie Cox) starts to enter the picture to help her family. The relationship between Jane and Stephen is the core of this story from the out-set here, and both actors absolutely knock it out of the park.
Where the film starts to loose some steam is in the presentation and pacing. While the performances here certainly prove James Marsh (who has a background in documentaries) is certainly a competent director, he falters somewhat in the storytelling department. Developments in the story happen either far too fast, or too slow, and typically, the more important stuff is the former. The most glaring of examples would be Jane’s transition into caring for Stephen. In what seems like only one or two scenes before, the two go on their first date, but then, when we see her after she’s found out about the disease, she is already in love with him and willing to devote herself completely to him. It’s not terrible, just very typical of these ‘oscar bait’ type movies that try just a touch too hard to go for the emotional resonance instead of wringing it out organically.
Despite that though, this is a moving and unbelievably well acted tribute to a brilliant and inspirational figure. It’s primarily carried by the sublime performances by Redmayne and Jones, but despite it’s cliched moments, the film does do a good job of highlighting just how much of a genius and family man Hawking really is, and with that, I can say that any emptiness towards him that I entered with has now been utterly filled.