“One simple, elegant equation to explain everything”
Alongside The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything offers a double whammy of Oscar-baiting, British-biopicing filmic goodness – Benedict Cumberwhatsit’s Alan Turing and Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking seem dead certs for Academy Award nominations alongside their respective films – and for my money, it is the latter has the edge on the Cumbersnatch-starring film as something slightly less Hollywoodised and thus more interesting. That’s not to say that James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything is all rough edges – it is based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir of her marriage after all and both she and Hawking have ‘blessed’ the film – but it is a complex love story that doesn’t shy away from too much challenge.
The focus of the film is in fact the relationship and marriage between physicist Stephen and Jane Wilde, his contemporary at Cambridge University where she studied literature, and the severe pressure that it came under after his diagnosis with motor neurone disease and then his increasing fame as his discoveries broke exciting fresh ground. Redmayne’s physical performance as Hawking is undoubtedly astounding as his condition worsens but there’s something deeper there too that comes across later on, in the merest flicker of the lips and glints in the eye that come before the synthesised voicebox kicks in, an enigmatic level of emotion that we never get to truly discover and that is entirely beguiling.
By contrast, Felicity Jones’ Jane can barely hide any emotion from her face. Her cheery do-gooder spirit is gradually but inevitably ground down by the physical realities of caring for him alongside the three children they had together and the emotional pressures too, especially once she meets Charlie Cox’s handsome and thoroughly decent choirmaster who becomes a part of their extended family. The intensity of this new friendship is eventually mirrored by Hawking’s own new emotional connection with nurse Elaine Mason – a wonderfully wry-faced Maxine Peake – a tangled web indeed but one which ends up being sorted out in a very genteel manner, underscored by the achingly beautiful music by Jóhann Jóhannsson which feels like the guaranteed Oscar winner to me.
But it’s hard not to want a little more of the tangledness given what really happened. Hawking and Elaine did get married but Elaine’s first husband – who appears fleetingly in the film having invented the prototype for the voicebox – just conveniently disappears from view. And Jane’s first version of her memoir, written after she married the choirmaster, was a much more vitriolic affair – this second one on which the film is based came after Hawking’s divorce from Elaine, amid rumours of dark manipulations, and something of a rapprochement with Jane who then heavily revised the text. There’s little of this meatier side of conflict contained within the film, which is hardly surprising, but still a touch disappointing.
But it’s a small complaint in the final analysis. The focus away from the science is an intriguing move that works, few of us could honestly say we’d be able to grasps the theory of relativity in under two hours but many more can relate to trials of making a relationship work. Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography has a gorgeous lushness about it and the supporting cast is just oozing with real quality. Harry Lloyd’s compassionate friend Brian (who gets what I am sure was a Doctor Who joke), Simon McBurney as Hawking’s father, David Thewlis as his professor Dennis Sciama, Abigail Cruttenden and Emily Watson (both underused) as the couple’s mothers – it’s a constant pleasure to watch. Tender and sensitive, refreshing and relatable, The Theory of Everything emerges as a quantum success and well worth a bet come Oscar night.