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On The Theory of Everything, and brilliance

January 29th, 2015

The Theory of Everything is based on the memoirs of Jane Hawking, once the wife of Stephen, and so it’s perhaps appropriate that the strongest, richest, most fully-realised performance in the film comes from Felicity Jones as Jane. Jones offers a quite outstanding depiction of a woman who gives up a career, and, to a large degree, her own independent identity, in order to devote her life to supporting a husband who increasingly relied on her.

The film is, of course, ostensibly the story of Stephen Hawking, one of the finest, and certainly one of the most famous, physicists in history. The broad strokes of his life to date are well-enough known; an astonishingly brilliant mind in a less-brilliant body. But as Eddie Redmayne superbly portrays Hawking’s physical decline as motor neurone disease progresses from clumsiness to almost total paralysis, Hawking’s character slowly starts to develop. Hawking the man starts the film as something of a cipher, a blank slate; he’s a somewhat one-dimensional, slightly clichéd, collection of twitches and dropped pencils; while his friends, all chummy, plummy 1960s Cambridge types, and Jane, the most developed character in the film, are actual people, Hawking is, to begin with, simply, it seems, along for the ride. But as his illness starts to take over, as he moves from one walking stick to two, and then into his wheelchair, and then his motorised chair, so his character starts, subtly, to emerge. But even then, it’s a slightly simplistic character — yes, he’s playful, and he appears to have a sense of humour, but that’s about all we really know about him, and perhaps this could have emerged earlier in the film. He has the occasional sharp line — he explains cosmology, when he meets Jane, as “a religion for intelligent atheists” — but there’s little depth to the young Hawking. And when he’s given comedic lines and situations, one is tempted to ask whether the fulsome laughter they get is solely due to the scene or the line, or whether there’s just a little sympathy for the man in the wheelchair.

But there’s an alternative reading. For most people, motor neurone disease would be a prison — what could be worse than to be trapped inside a body that doesn’t respond, to be left with only your thoughts? But then, most people aren’t Stephen Hawking, and there is a case to be made for the idea that a man as monumentally cerebral as Hawking, a man who, one gets the impression, lives to think the most sublimely insightful thoughts. One could read Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking in The Theory of Everything as an evolution that happened because of, not in spite of, a catastrophic illness.

At any rate, Redmayne does a magnificent job of inhabiting the role. The problem is, he inhabits the role of Stephen Hawking’s Illness, but not, really, of Stephen Hawking. He’s quite likely to pocket award after award for this performance, but he’s played an illness more than a man, which is a shame. The Theory of Everything is a serious contender for the best-picture Oscar. It’s a very good film, a story well-told of a woman who lived in the shadow of a brilliant and challenging man, but it’s less the story of Stephen and more the story of Jane. And on that level, it’s an excellent film.

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