I’m not much of a science guy (ironically I wanted to be a scientist in the early stages of my childhood), and so I’ve always been more interested in Stephen Hawking as the witty man who battled insurmountable physical odds as opposed to the brilliant scientist with the revolutionary theories.
The Theory of Everything, up for five gongs at the Oscars in a couple of weeks including Best Picture, is therefore custom made for people like me. Based on a memoir, the film places its focus firmly on the incredible love story of Hawking and his first wife Jane, who married him despite knowing that he was going to be handicapped and probably die shortly from his early onset motor neuron disease — better known today as its sub-category, ALS, thanks to all those ice bucket challenges — and bore him several children while looking after him and studying for a PhD herself.
You might have already guessed (correctly) that this is one of those moving and inspirational true stories about surviving the odds and overcoming adversity. While reality prevents the film from turning their story into a happily-ever-after fairytale, viewers need to be prepared for a highly romanticised version of what really happened, where events are cut, altered or made up and inconvenient facts are glossed over or ignored. It doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff, but it does smooth over the ugliest side of his illness and their relationship. And let’s face it, there must have been one — I could barely handle what he went through and what she had to put up with in a sanitised two-hour film, let alone fathom what it was like in real life stretched over decades.
Unfortunately, The Theory of Everything is also one of those movies where the more you read about how untrue the true story is, the more your impression of it becomes clouded and conflicted. So I would advise anyone wanting to watch it to avoid reading about Hawking’s life until afterwards, especially this Guardian review by Michelle Dean.
As for the science, you get a basic idea of what Hawking’s theories are about, but this aspect of his life is secondary to his disease and family in the film. The science in the story is not educational; it’s a tool to make statements about God and the meaning of life, themes highlighted by the contrast between Hawking’s atheism and Jane’s strong Christian faith, as well as the fact that God, if he exists, appears to have played a cruel joke on Hawking by awarding him one of the brilliant minds in history but crippling his disease-ravaged body beyond repair.
Some viewers might be disappointed by the decision to push science out of the film’s equation, but it was a necessary one to give the necessary attention to the story that it wanted to tell. What’s important is that the film makes it clear that whatever Hawking came up with was very impressive and world-changing, so much so that the expenses of his round-the-clock care are taken care of by charitable organisations and benevolent folk. At the same time, Hawking is no saint, and this film makes sure audiences know that, notwithstanding his brilliance, he was certainly a very flawed person with negative character traits like everyone else.
Inaccuracies aside, The Theory of Everything is an exceptional film; a touching, tear-jerking drama that deserves its Oscar-bait reputation. Backed by the pleasing direction of Oscar-winning documentary maker James Marsh (Man on Wire) and the assured yet conventional script by Anthony McCarten, the movie ticks all the boxes from a technical perspective. It is, however, the jaw-dropping performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen and Jane Hawking that fuel the heart of the film.
Of all the Academy Awards Best Actor nominees for 2015, the only one I haven’t yet seen is Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher, though I can’t imagine anyone more deserving of the award than Redmayne. Apart from the striking physical resemblance, Redmayne also channels Hawking’s expressions, mannerisms and demeanour. Having seen Hawking in the flesh a couple of times during my year in Cambridge, I can personally vouch for how good Redmayne is. In fact, he’s so good that Hawking himself said he couldn’t distinguish between the actor and himself.
Jones’ performance as the resilient Jane is arguably just as good, albeit for different reasons. The strength of her portrayal lies in the nuanced ways in which she displays the simmering emotions suppressed just beneath her stoic exterior, at times with only her love for her husband and faith in God helping her hang on by a thread. I doubt she will win the Oscar, though the nomination is certainly deserving.
It may have its share of detractors (who do have legitimate concerns), but it’s hard to watch The Theory of Everything and not get a lump in your throat. It’s easy to regard the film’s emotional punch as a natural reaction to Hawking’s devastating disease — especially when he had such a bright future ahead of him — though full credit must still go to the director, writer and cast for creating an experience that feels a lot less manipulative than it really is. This is a beautiful, bittersweet experience that ranks up there as one of the most emotionally engaging films of the year.
4 stars out of 5