Eddie Redmayne gives an extraordinary performance as Stephen Hawking in this moving and life-affirming biopic and he is nearly matched by Felicity Jones as his wife, Jane. Based on her memoir (Travelling to Infinity), The Theory of Everything is a love story with a difference – a celebration of the soaring human mind and spirit that is also down-to-earth in its depiction of a marriage. The film’s witty, intelligent script manages to humanize both the cosmologist genius who succumbs to motor neurone disease and the saintly wife who cares for him. In his depiction of college life in 1960s Cambridge director James Marsh (Man on Wire) has mostly avoided ‘heritage’ fripperies, giving us something much stronger. The Theory of Everything is a tonic for the New Year.
When we first meet Hawking he is on a bike, racing a fellow PhD student down Trinity Lane on the way to a party. Here, he meets Jane, introducing himself as a cosmologist – ‘a kind of religion for intelligent atheists’. She is ‘C of E’, she says, to which he replies, ‘I suppose someone has to be.’ Hawking has already set his sights on infinity and beyond, aiming to work out ‘one single equation that explains everything in the universe.’ Jane writes her phone number on a napkin for him.
The young Hawking is full of life, with a broad grin and a mischievous twinkle under his NHS specs and mop of hair. He is no geek or swat – he coxes rowers on the Cam, listens to Wagner turned up loud, plays pinball and leaves homework to the last minute. Watching spectacular fireworks at a May Ball with Jane, he talks black holes, Time and Tide washing powder. There is a playful chemistry between them, and soon they are married.
After Hawking collapses, banging his head on his college court flagstones, he is diagnosed with motor neurone disease, which affects speaking, walking, breathing and swallowing. The result is gradual muscle decay, a wasting away that usually kills its victims after two years. Stephen’s brain and his thoughts will not be affected, the doctor tells him, ‘but eventually no-one will know what they are.’
Eddie Redmayne’s gradual physical transformation into the Stephen Hawking we recognise today is utterly convincing. From one walking stick-one foot-dragging, to two walking sticks-barely crawling upstairs, to wheelchair-bound speech-slurrer, to head-lolling mute with expressive facial twitches and hi-tech voicebox, this is a Method performance to rank with Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar winning Christy Brown in My Left Foot.
Felicity Jones’s sensitive and subtle performance superbly captures Jane’s conflicting emotions when faced with Stephen’s illness and fame. She has had to make many sacrifices to care for him and bring up their three children. Help arrives in the shape of her church choir tutor, Jonathan (Charlie Cox), who acts as both nurse and surrogate father. Eventually he becomes her second husband when the couple split up.
By the end, we have to agree with Hawking’s Professor and friend, Dennis Sciama (David Trewlis) who, introducing him to a Q&A audience, says ‘it has been a joy to watch this man defy every expectation, personal and professional.’ We do not, for example, expect him to be so funny, irreverent and earthy. He is fond of Penthouse magazine and watching tv drama: ‘I think John is probably homosexual,’ he remarks to Jane, ‘by the look of his jumper.’
Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is a brilliant condensation of an extraordinary life – the two hours feel like one – and, in keeping with Hawking’s subject, we are treated to a neat time-reversing coda in which Stephen is miraculously restored to full health and bow-tie, back at his May Ball.