For a film that could so easily have fallen into a black hole of mawkishness and reverence for its wheelchair-bound genius, The Theory Of Everything is instead a superbly acted study of two people’s remarkable journey through a complicated marriage.
Had this not been based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir Travelling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen, you suspect James Marsh’s film would have had a very different – and possibly inferior – slant.
However, Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is careful to remind us there are always two people in a marriage, even if one of them is the world-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.
While’s Hawking’s stratospheric trajectory from Cambridge University cosmology student to the most famous scientist on the planet is undoubtedly a major focus of the film, The Theory Of Everything is at its heart a story of how two people struggle to hold a marriage together in the face of extraordinary pressures, both physical and emotional.
The film follows the couple (played by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones) from their first encounter at university, through Stephen’s diagnosis with motor neurone disease and their decision to marry and have children in spite of the two-year life expectancy he was initially given. As the two-year mark comes and goes (curiously ignored) and Stephen’s career ascends, the film also focuses on the growing strain put on Jane as she tries to balance her own life against that of raising kids and looking after an increasingly debilitated husband.
Things take a twist with the introduction of Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), a widower whom Jane meets when trying out for the church choir. Initially welcomed into the fold as someone who is there to give the frustrated and unhappy Jane much-needed help, the dynamic shifts as Jane and Jonathan become closer while Stephen looks on, undoubtedly aware of their growing attraction but choosing not to say anything.
It’s here where the film skilfully avoids soap opera over-drama and weaves a complex tapestry wherein Jane is torn between the love she has for her husband and the feelings she shares with the quiet and principled Jonathan. During a scene when Jane, Jonathan and her kids are staying at a campsite on their way to see Stephen in France, it cuts between Stephen’s failing health at a classical music concert and Jane going to Jonathan’s tent. The film chooses to remain ambiguous as to whether anything happens between them, but reality bites when she learns of the extent of Stephen’s sudden downturn.
Time is an integral player in the story, be it the two-year life expectancy given to Stephen upon being diagnosed with MND or the decision by Stephen to “wind back the clock” and prove what happened following the Big Bang. The momentum of time, both forwards and backwards, is represented by a clock-like circular motion of the camera that Marsh returns to throughout the film, from milk being poured into a cup of tea, to a spiral staircase or the circular patterns of dancers during the Cambridge University ball.
Spanning such a long period (roughly covering the early 1960s to the publication of Hawking’s celebrated book A Brief History Of Time in 1988 and the arrival of his assistant Elaine, played by Maxine Peake, in the early 1990s), it’s inevitable that certain sections of the story are glossed over, but it’s nevertheless a pity that the final act feels so rushed and the fate of characters seen extensively early on, such as Stephen’s parents and his (fictional) roommate and friend Brian (Harry Lloyd), aren’t resolved.
One thing that isn’t uncertain is the quality of the central performances. Jones gives a career-best turn in a role that, if overplayed, could have been maudlin; however, the actress imbues Jane with a steely determination that belies her soft English rose exterior.
The chemistry she shares with the Redmayne is captivating. For his part, Redmayne is extraordinary, disappearing into the role so completely you soon forget you’re watching a performance at all, much like Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot.
The Theory Of Everything may be too safe at times, but its astronomical cast gives it the big bang it needs to live up to the true story.