It will come as something of a relief to many that The Theory of Everything is not really interested in science. There are few blinding mathematical equations to contend with, no stylised renderings of cosmological diagrams. Mercifully, it is a film about a scientist, rather than his field.
That scientist is a fairly famous one: Stephen Hawking, a man whose name has come to be intrinsically linked with high genius. In this beautifully realised biopic, the Cambridge professor recognisable by his unflinchingly confronted degenerative disability and iconic speech-generating device — not to mention A Brief History of Time, the seminal tome which launched him into the zeitgeist — is played with aplomb by a superlative Eddie Redmayne.
The physicist aspires to a ‘single elegant equation to explain everything’ throughout, yet director James Marsh (the maker of stellar documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, and the less satisfying Belfast-set IRA drama Shadow Dancer) balances the numbers with a challenging love story built around Hawking’s 30-year marriage to fellow Cambridge student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). As Hawking, Redmayne gives a performance as powerful as it is layered, his usual intensity offset greatly by a noble sense of light-hearted positivity.
Opening in 1963, Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten depict Hawking as a PhD student of peerless ability. Redmayne, all raffish confidence and aloof brilliance, buys into it, exploring the character’s easy relationship with his own startling intelligence. Indeed, the earliest challenges for the cool, bespectacled Hawking are getting a date with the equally bright Wilde and settling on a thesis topic.
In the austere surroundings of Trinity Hall, captured with sumptuous understatement by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, Hawking engages with the full gamut of an Oxbridge existence: ale, intellectualism, coxing. So far so spiffing. In the wake of a nasty, palsy-induced fall, however, his charmed life is upended by the diagnosis that would come to define his public image. He is told that he suffers from motor neurone disease and has only two years to live.
The subsequent picture extracts a great deal from the juxtaposition of his crippled form and soaring mental capacity, a challenging development faced, without self-pity or remorse, in partnership with Wilde’s great woman behind a great man. Redmayne’s presence is the tour de force here, of course, transforming from a sprightly imp — albeit one exhibiting subtle hints of encroaching deterioration, almost from the beginning — into a twisted, still and impassive shell.
The actor’s physical evolution is extraordinary, neither impersonation nor insult. Crucially, Redmayne sends out intermittent flares of Hawking’s latent personality, his fixed grimace softened into a smile here, the flicker of an eyebrow there. It sits easily with Marsh’s mature direction, which is confident enough to cast as an icon a flawed man whose selfishness becomes increasingly prevalent as his isolation grows.
Moments of real emotion persist in a marriage laced with frustrated ambitions, yet built on enduring love and, ironically, Redmayne dazzles to the point of dwarfing his own identity. Hawking remains a strangely unknowable figure, the things that make him tick lost beneath this wonderful piece of acting. Jones, on the other hand, enjoys few chances to show off. Her controlled display, therefore, is all the more inspiring for it.
Jones's personal journey is a humbler one, perhaps, yet there is bravery also in standing next to Redmayne as he undergoes his metamorphosis. She changes also, though a thread of steely loyalty endures until Hawking’s condition, and his quiet defiance, pushes her to the edge. From pretty scholar to emotionally battered wife-cum-carer, Jones imbues Wilde with a knowing worldliness as fascinating as anything served up by her onscreen husband.
It is in this two-handed dynamic that The Theory of Everything discovers a soul. Hawking’s quest to discern the source of existence takes a distant back seat while this marriage winds its way through three decades of intimate trials and triumphs. If this adaptation of Wilde’s frank memoirs feels occasionally uneven in the treatment of its subjects — his philandering is handled in a strange, almost sniggering manner; her potential infidelity is treated like the coming of an especially bleak rain cloud — there is more than enough heart to compensate.
‘I have loved you. I did my best,’ whispers Wilde, as their union crumbles. Maybe Hawking’s answer was there all along.
An edited version of this article was first published here.