I watched the Stephen Hawking biopic in early February 2015. My challenge was to watch it without influence from the media frenzy surrounding the film and, in particular, Eddie Redmayne’s performance in the lead role. It was fairly easy to block it out, such is the conviction in his performance and the exquisite way it has been captured by director James Marsh and the excellent team of people that helped craft this fantastic film.
In case you’re unaware, Professor Stephen Hawking is a world-renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist whose book of personal theories A Brief History of Time sold over ten million copies worldwide. He suffers from motor neurone disease (MND), which set in whilst he was still studying at university, and he is now all but completely paralysed. It is a revelation that he is even alive today – he was diagnosed in 1963 and given two years to live. The film tells the story of him reaching university, falling in love with his first wife and mother of his three children Jane Wilde, and becoming the most famous theoretical physicist of the modern world.
A little was made in the build up to release of the choice to cast an able-bodied actor as Hawking. Obviously these complaints come from people who haven’t seen the film because you just can’t cast someone with disabilities as Hawking when the first third of the film is spent on his life before his terrible motor neurone disease set in. I think these comments have gone away now as more and more people see the film.
Frankly, Redmayne’s performance was astonishing. He completely nails it, working as both a great piece of acting and an uncanny impersonation. The frustration that must be felt by the thousands of sufferers of MND is channelled directly to the viewer by coupling some intimate close-up camera work with some exceptional acting. If Redmayne wins the Oscar next month it will be because of the latter parts of the film.
Just as important is the characterisation of his wife, whose autobiography this film is based on. It’s a well-balanced treatment, with her choices portrayed honestly but respectfully by Oscar-nominated Felicity Jones. It’s a strong person that sticks around in such testing conditions and nobody can be judged on the choices they make. Just as with Hawking, she is treated with the utmost respect.
I’m greatly appreciative that a fantastic film has been made on Hawking as I didn’t think the eponymously titled 2013 documentary quite did his story justice. It too heavily concentrated on his current way-of-life and all the problems that it brings, rather than the works of genius he has brought to the world and the battles he fought to become so popular. It was, for me, a missed opportunity – a story that needs to be told, but one that shouldn’t take precedence over the one told in The Theory of Everything.
I’m not sure how closely the film sticks to the facts, as I’ve not yet read Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen (the book by Jane Wilde Hawking on which this is based). Obviously not every last thing that features in this film will be a perfect account of what happened, but that freedom is allowed in biopics. As with The Imitation Game, the most important thing to do is tell a great story, or it falls short of the mark as a piece of cinematic art. Actually, I think The Imitation Game was a better film in general, and Cumberbatch edges it on the acting front for me, but I doubt the Academy will agree and to be honest that’s far more important.
The Theory of Everything is out now at cinemas worldwide.