One of the most talked-about films this year in the run-up to awards season, The Theory of Everything is an adaptation of Jane Hawking’s book about her understandably strained relationship with her first husband, celebrated quantum physicist Professor Stephen Hawking. As everyone should be aware, Hawking came to prominence as much for his breakout theories about black holes and the origins of time, as for the fact he was debilitated by crippling motor neurone disease.
Eddie Redmayne, whom most will recognise for his work in Les Miserables and My Week With Marylyn, is admittedly fantastic as Hawking, from the awkward and bashful Cambridge grad student, to the wheelchair-bound mathematical genius known around the world. It is an incredibly physical and nuanced performance, that due to the story’s nature will be strutinised by audiences throughout. It displays a whole other side of Redmayne’s abilities that have been absent from his roles to-date. Felicity Jones lands the far less showy role of doting wife Jane, but nevertheless gives strong, sympathetic support, though one might be forgiven for suspecting Jane is being presented throughout somewhat rose-tined glasses.
As writer of the source text, Jane Hawking comes across just a little too cleanly in Marsh’s film, never wavering from her post as doting wife and mother despite numerous testing ordeals and flirtatious offers from Charlie Cox’s cooly understated Jonathan Hellyer Jones. Conversely, Hawking’s nurse, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) – whom Hawking ultimately left his wife to marry – is bossy, arrogant and possessive right from the get-go. She’s also a Northerner, which pierces the otherwise idyllic surroundings of their affluent Home Counties setting.
Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten paint Cambridge as a cloistered enclave of maladjusted boffins, where the likes of Harry Lloyd’s toffee-nosed classmate and David Thewlis’ doddery professor can fumble around unthreatened by the realities of the outside world. So too the relationship between Jane and Stephen is delightfully polite and unthreatening as their good breeding, impeccable manners and sexual inexperience only serve to make the young lovebirds all the more appealing and irresistible to each other.
James Marsh (no relation sadly) made a name for himself with an impressive string of documentaries, particularly Winsconsin Death Trip, Man on Wire (for which he won an Academy Award) and Project Zim. He specialised in examining oddball characters with bizarre peccadilloes who embarked on unique enterprises and passionate crusades outside of the norm. Certainly one could argue that a personality like Hawking fits squarely alongside Marsh’s earlier subjects, but his approach here lacks any discernible personality or artistic signature. There are moments of humour and the occasional standout sequence – like when Hawking is finally fitted with his “American” electronic voicebox – that suggest a better film is somewhere under the surface, but the infrequency of such touches only make the pedestrian nature of the rest of the film all the more lamentable.
Much like Hawking’s bestselling book, A Brief History of Time – a layman’s guide to black holes and quantum physics – The Theory of Everything seems to only take a cursory interest in the great scientist’s work and professional accomplishments. The film is always focused on Hawking’s deteriorating physical condition and how it directly impacts his marriage to Jane. While this ensures both lead performers have plenty of screen time to run the emotional gamut from doe-eyed courtship to disabled despair, those hoping to learn much about Hawking’s career will be left wanting. But then as critics of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar have struggled to embrace in recent weeks, while they might think they want to sit through a film about relativity and quantum mechanics, they don’t really.