The Theory of Everything

January 31, 2015
Eddie Redmayne in 'The Theory of Everything' (2014)
Eddie Redmayne in 'The Theory of Everything' (2014)

Stephen Hawking must be the most unlikely romantic lead ever featured in a mainstream movie. It’s hard enough to imagine a gripping film about a mathematics boffin whose greatest thrill is to solve another equation. When that boffin is struck down by a degenerative motor neurone disease that leaves him paralysed, the required level of narrative ingenuity increases.

It could only happen with Hawking, who is “a rock star”, in the words of actress, Felicity Jones. Despite his physical disabilities Hawking has managed to get married and divorced (twice), conceive three children, and write a best-selling book that sold 10 million copies although hardly anyone seems to have read it. He is routinely referred to as one of the greatest minds of the past century.

Director, James Marsh, chiefly known for his documentaries, has chosen to treat The Theory of Everything as a grand romance. One presumes this was partly because of the difficulties of providing a cinematic exposition of our hero’s groundbreaking theories. When he saw the film, Hawking allegedly said he would have liked more physics. As it is hard enough to get the general public interested in a movie without Orcs it seems unlikely that an explanation of quantum mechanics would have proved a recipe for box office success.

Hence we have ‘Stephen Hawking: the Romcom’. The physics are confined to a few hasty scrawls on a blackboard; colleagues’ occasional shouts of “Brilliant!”; and a cosmic eyeball sequence intended to convey a flash of inspiration. When his professor asks Hawking what will be the subject of his thesis, he stands there, wide-eyed, and says: “Time!” His real life answer would have been far more prolix.

While we are left in no doubt that science is the other romance of Hawking’s life, it is allowed to take second place to the story of passion conquering adversity.

It begins as a love-at-first-sight tale, when Stephen (Science) meets Jane (Arts) at a Cambridge party and they spend the evening in conversation. As the relationship blossoms, Hawking is injured in a fall and receives his fateful diagnosis. His efforts to push Jane aside only fire her determination to stand by him. She hastens into a marriage, knowing that the progress of the disease will be swift, with a probable life expectancy of two years.

Jane’s dedication is remarkable, but Hawking’s condition is an ordeal for his family. As he defies the odds and lives on, growing steadily more famous, the relationship begins to decay. By way of a distraction, Jane’s mother comes up with the very “English” suggestion that her daughter joins the church choir. This leads to a meeting with widowed choirmaster, Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), who soon becomes a new addition to the Hawking household, taking on fatherly duties that Stephen cannot manage. We are asked to believe that Jane and Jonathan put their mutual attraction on hold, either through their Christian beliefs or a sense of propriety.

By the time Jane has consummated her relationship with Jonathan, Hawking has bonded with his therapist, Elaine (Maxine Peake). It is he who makes the break, allowing Jane to feel pleased with her own steadfastness, and perhaps a little infuriated at those long months of self-denial.

What the movie doesn’t tell us is that Hawking has since divorced Elaine, who was accused of physically abusing her famous husband.

With Stephen and Jane Hawking still within the land of the living the filmmakers were required to exercise a degree of tact in dealing with the details of the marriage. That tact brings on some dangerously heartwarming moments, while the unravelling of the relationship seems to happen too quickly, as long years of domestic life are compressed into a few minutes.

Nevertheless, any criticisms of The Theory of Everything are trivial compared to the strengths. For the most part, Marsh, and scriptwriter, Anthony McCarten, have made an efficient job out of this intractable material. The film features whole-hearted performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, and a wonderfully subtle score by Icelandic composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson. A surfeit of violins would have plunged this story into the black hole of sentimentality.

Redmayne has already won the Golden Globe for Best Actor – Drama, and he stands a good chance of taking out the Oscar, although sentiment will favour a born-again Michael Keaton in Birdman. To play Hawking, Redmayne consulted doctors, osteopaths, and even a choreographer, learning how to contract his muscles, and move his hands and feet in a convincing fashion. When Hawking loses his voice altogether Redmayne has to rely solely on body language and facial expressions.

There has been much talk of Daniel Day-Lewis’s role in My Left Foot (1989), but one wonders if Redmayne also watched Moon So-ri’s performance as a cerebral palsy victim in Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis (2002), a film that deserves to be much better known.

The actor’s hardest task must have been reproducing Hawking’s perpetual smile. Make a wrong move and it no longer seems a sign of resilient good spirits, but pure grotesquerie – rather like Keira Knightley’s repertoire of facial expressions in The Imitation Game.

Redmayne’s contortions are mesmeric, but it might be argued that Jones has the really testing role, playing the part of a woman who marries for love – not because she relishes the incipient martyrdom of caring for a seriously ill husband. Her performance is a master class in English understatement, with emotional upheavals being conveyed by a creased eyebrow or a quick movement of the mouth. There may not be much science in this portrait of a marriage, but more importantly, there is not a trace of melodrama.

The Theory of Everything
Directed by James Marsh
Screenplay by Anthony McCarten, from a book by Jane Hawking
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, David Thewlis, Harry Lloyd, Simon McBurney, Emily Watson, Maxine Peake
UK, rated PG, 123 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 31st January, 2015.