After The Imitation Game saw Benedict Cumberbatch throw down the gauntlet for the Best Actor Oscar with an impressively immersive performance as tortured genius Alan Turing, The Theory of Everything sees Eddie Redmayne take on the even bigger challenge of portraying arguably the world’s greatest living scientist: Stephen Hawking.
Redmayne certainly rises to the occasion, somehow conveying an incredible depth and range of emotion even as his character’s movement and speech are slowly stripped away from him, and the Les Misérables-actor always succeeds in maintaining the spark of wit, intelligence and humour that is so vital to Hawking’s continued survival.
While most viewers will be familiar with the Hawking of today – wheelchair bound and communicating via an American voice-generating computer – writer Anthony McCarten, working from Jane Hawking’s memoirs, turns the clock back to the eminent scientist’s days as a PHD student at Cambridge. Far from the tightly-wound, antisocial science geek you might expect, the young Hawking was actually an enthusiastic, mischievous and surprisingly lazy student – albeit one with a clearly brilliant mind.
From these ordinary beginnings, McCarten chronicles a remarkable life, exploring the genesis of Hawking’s most famous ideas on the origins of the universe and how his health gradually eroded following a diagnosis of motor neuron disease ALS.
Yet this is not a biopic in the traditional sense of the word. Though McCarten makes vague nods to the seminal moments in Hawking’s career, this is really a life told through the prism of a touching love story, which charts the compassionate, complicated and determined romance of Stephen and Jane Hawking, who meet as students and endeavour to stay together even as Hawking’s illness forces him to increasingly depend on his wife as a carer.
What makes this story work is the wonderful chemistry between Redmayne and Felicity Jones – who does remarkable work in a restrained role, convincing first as a young, frolicking couple and later as two people clinging on to the remains of their relationship as the challenges of Hawking’s condition erode some of their intimacy.
Where this becomes problematic is when McCarten attempts to parlay Hawking’s ambition of devising a unifying theory for the universe into a saccharine suggestion that love is the answer to everything. This determination for romance and sentiment above all else rather downplays the sheer brilliance of Hawking’s successes, reducing an extraordinary life to puddle of romantic clichés.
While The Imitation Game used Alan Turing’s innovative work to reveal the man behind the genius, this story muddles the brilliance of Hawking’s scientific achievements, which required a stubborn resistance to outdated modes of thinking, and never fully explains why his work is so significant.
Though The Theory of Everything is a magnificently moving and bittersweet love story that is beautifully filmed and superbly performed by its two leads, it ultimately leans too heavily on romantic schmaltz, and comes at the expense of the exceptional life and achievements of the man at the centre of everything.
Run time: 123 mins; Genre: Biopic/Romance; Released: 1 January 2015;
Director: James Marsh; Screenwriters: Anthony McCarten, Jane Hawking;
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, David Thewlis
Click here to watch the trailer for The Theory of Everything