A Brief History of Time, Biography, David Thewlis, Drama, Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, James Marsh, Jane Hawking, Literary adaptation, Motor neurone disease, Physics, Review, Stephen Hawking, Time, True story
D: James Marsh / 123m
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Simon McBurney, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Maxine Peake, Harry Lloyd
Cambridge, 1963. Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) is an astrophysics student with a brilliant mind and a bright future. At a party he meets Jane Wilde (Jones), who is studying Spanish Romantic poetry. As their romance blossoms so too does Stephen’s clumsiness and lack of coordination. A bad fall leads to a diagnosis of motor neurone disease and a prognosis that gives him only two more years to live. Stephen hides himself away, even from Jane, but she refuses to give up on him. Despite reservations from both their families, the pair marry and soon have their first child.
Stephen achieves his doctorate but his illness is progressing rapidly. He becomes reliant on a wheelchair for getting about and his speech deteriorates. He and Jane have a second child, and the burden on her becomes plain, but her sense of loyalty and commitment stop her from seeking help. At her mother’s suggestion she joins a local choir. Jane and the choir master, Jonathan (Cox) become friends and he begins to help her at home, looking after the children and Stephen as well. Their relationship becomes more serious; when Stephen and Jane have a third child, Jane’s mother asks if the baby is Jonathan’s. He overhears this and while he admits he has feelings for her – and she for him – he decides to stay away for a while. Stephen, however, persuades him to continue helping his family.
An invitation for Stephen to attend a concert in Bordeaux allows Jane and Jonathan to take the children camping there as well. While at the concert, Stephen becomes unwell and is taken to hospital. There a doctor advises Jane that Stephen will need a tracheotomy and that, as a result he’ll never speak again; she tells them to go ahead. Before they return to England, she and Jonathan agree not to see each other any more. Back home, Jane hires a helper, Elaine (Peake), who works with Stephen as a personal assistant. He also receives a computer which has a built-in voice synthesizer that allows him to communicate with people. It also spurs him to write a book, A Brief History of Time. When he’s invited to America to accept an award he tells Jane that he’ll be taking Elaine with him, and not her. Their marriage effectively over, Jane and Jonathan reconnect, while Stephen’s worldwide fame increases, culminating in his meeting the Queen.
Anyone preparing to see The Theory of Everything and expecting to be overwhelmed by long stretches involving discussions related to quantum physics and black hole information paradoxes will be both relieved and pleasantly surprised. For this isn’t a biography of Stephen Hawking the noted physicist, but Stephen Hawking the individual. Eschewing his work in favour of his home life, the movie shows how his illness proved unable to diminish his spirit. As the disease that threatens his life leaves him more and more cut off from the world around him, Stephen’s determination and will to survive rises to the fore. It’s gladdening to see his personality and character still able to shine through, the spark of his mental state undimmed. Once he’s overcome his initial bout of self-pity and he marries Jane, there’s not one moment where he even comes close to contemplating giving in. And when his relationship with Elaine leads to the dissolution of his marriage, the emotion and the regret are all there in his eyes.
Stephen’s courage by itself would make for an uplifting, inspirational story, but what makes the movie even more effective is its detailing of the struggles undertaken – willingly it must be said – by his wife, Jane. As Stephen becomes increasingly disabled, the strain she feels grows and grows, and while her devotion to him is admirable, it’s clear that her need for a normal life is becoming more and more important to her. She snatches brief moments of happiness with Jonathan, a widower looking for someone to ease his own sense of loss; they’re kindred spirits, but Jane’s sense of propriety keeps them apart. This is the other tragedy the movie portrays so well: the emotional despair that comes with realising you have no more left to give, and that it’s only a solemn commitment to someone you once loved that keeps you from leaving.
Based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, the movie is an emotional roller coaster ride, charting the rise and fall of their relationship over thirty years. It’s a movie that’s expertly crafted by Marsh and features an incisive, sharply defined script by Anthony McCarten. Together, they’ve created a movie that throws a spotlight onto one of the most poignant and touching of relationships and shows how mutual affection and reliance aren’t always enough. Using a surprising lightness of touch that complements the underlying humour displayed by Stephen throughout, Marsh directs with passion and perspicacity, getting to the heart of each scene with ease and coaxing tremendous performances from his two leads. It’s also a tremendous movie to look at, with Benoît Delhomme’s photography proving almost sumptuous at times, beautifully lit and offering compositions that are lush and redolent of the time in which they’re set.
But of course the main draw – or draws, if you prefer – are the performances by Redmayne and Jones. Redmayne is nothing short of excellent as Stephen, whether portraying the gauche young man with a bright future ahead of him, or the crippled, contorted genius his illness failed to stop him becoming. Redmayne’s performance is all the more impressive for having been shot out of sequence, challenging the actor to keep track of Stephen’s physical decline and adapt it to the production schedule. Even toward the end of the movie, when he’s unable to communicate except with his eyes, Redmayne ensures every feeling and every emotion is clearly written in his gaze. It’s a towering achievement, impressive both physically and for its humanity.
But in many ways, this is Jones’s movie, the actress proving mesmerising to watch, her performance one of such singular intensity and skill that it’s almost impossible to believe she’s acting, so completely does she inhabit Jane’s character and personality. Her scenes with Cox are a masterclass of understated longing and repressed emotion – when Jane declares she has feelings for Jonathan it’s such a heartbreaking moment and so powerfully realised that the viewer can only marvel at the depths being plumbed to realise such a moment in so compelling a fashion. But what Jones does best is to externalise each little instant where Jane’s love for Stephen is eroded just that little bit more, and just a little bit more, until she’s forced to admit that she did love him once. The audience can see that moment coming, and the inevitability of it, but when it does come, Jones makes it almost unbearable to watch.
There’s more than able support from the likes of Thewlis as Stephen’s college professor, McBurney as his father, and Watson as Jane’s mother, while Cox’s diffident manner as Jonathan is so appealing it’s no wonder Jane falls in love with him (they’re still together today). The Cambridge locations are well chosen and there’s a tremendously evocative score by Jóhann Jóhannsson that is like a musical equation (if such a thing exists). And if anyone’s not sure, yes that is the real Stephen Hawking’s synthesised voice used in the final half hour, relied upon as the makers couldn’t reproduce its unique sound.
Rating: 9/10 – a superb biography of two people in a marriage where nothing is assured except the slow deterioration of their love for each other, The Theory of Everything is one of the most remarkable movies of 2014; with two justly lauded performances at its forefront, it’s a movie that dispenses its main protagonist’s passion for science in bite-size pieces and keeps the focus rightly on his successes and failures as “just another” fallible human being.