Film Review: The Theory of Everything

Red-faced to admit it, but Redmayne really can act

It was with a certain amount of indifference that I approached reviewing this biopic of world-renowned physicist and author Stephen Hawking. There’s only so much Oscar fodder one can consume before feeling a little abused, and this – the life story of Britain’s foremost authority on space-time, who was diagnosed with motor-neurone disease at the age of 21 – appears to carry enough hallmarks of the kind of earnest, formulaic awards-friendly drama to reduce a discerning audience to groans. 

Certainly, this season’s The Imitation Game, another biopic of ostensibly similar ilk, fell into this category and in fact, it doesn’t seem long since we saw that film’s star, Benedict Cumberbatch, take on this very role in the BBC’s made-for-TV Hawking. 

Young in love in Oxford
We join the undergraduate Hawking (Redmayne) as his able-bodied self, tearing around the streets of Oxford on his push bike. It makes for an exciting opening sequence that quickly segues into the romance at the centre of the film when he meets Jane Wilde (Jones), his wife to be and author of the memoirs from which this film is adapted.

These early scenes rocket along at breakneck pace, both narratively efficient and emotionally effective despite their economy. Before long, Hawking has completed his bachelor’s degree at Oxford and is making his name in Cambridge with a PhD that attempts to apply pre-existing theories about black holes to the lifespan of the entire universe.

Hawking’s early career is depicted with such a momentum that when the terrible diagnosis comes, it is with an unbearable thud that one registers almost physically. After a number of telltale difficulties, Hawking finally collapses, cracking his precious skull on cold cobbled stones. His diagnosis carries the awful prediction of him having only two years left to live. From here on, the pacing is more deliberate, steadier, with deeper focus on his marriage and Jane’s immeasurable contribution to the Hawking legend.

Teary theory works well
The Theory of Everything is a rare biographical picture in that it credibly justifies that tired old trope of focusing on the subject’s love life as a means of crafting a saleable narrative. It’s employed in almost every film like it, but here, perhaps because this is so intrinsically Wilde’s story as much as Hawking’s, it feels rightly placed.

There’s a tasteful balance between the personal and the professional throughout – and while during the latter half, their relationship eclipses the science, this is a welcome shift, allowing us to further explore them within a new dynamic. Tellingly, only Hawking’s nurse (and subsequent second wife) is poorly drawn – a shame, since the gifted actress Maxine Peake is wasted in the role.

Redmayne a revelation
The greatest revelation here is Redmayne himself. I’ll admit to an annoyance at much of his work as I’ve often found him to have misjudged his performances, resulting in laughable theatrics (see Jupiter Ascending or Byzantium) – but not so here. Redmayne couples an intelligent, nuanced delivery with a transformative physical realism that will withstand the inevitable comparison to Daniel Day Lewis’s My Left Foot.

Professor Hawking also proves to be an excellent vehicle for director James Marsh too. Not unlike Philipe Petit in Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary Man On Wire, Hawking is an inspirational character who pushes himself to live unintimidated by the limits of flesh and bone.


The Theory of Everything