Stephen Hawking is one of the most eminent minds of the last century, yet he may be as famous for coping with disability as he is for expounding on the universe. A similar tension runs through James Marsh’s adaptation of Jane Hawking’s autobiography. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the source material, Stephen’s scientific breakthroughs receive relatively little screentime, the film’s focus being on Stephen and Jane’s relationship. The sequences between Jane and Stephen are often touching without being mawkish, and at no point does Stephen appear simply as an invalid. Equally, however, his condition is not glossed over – Jane’s care for Stephen is an integral part of their lives. Some sequences emphasise Stephen’s physical difficulties as well as Jane’s courage and resolve to help him, and the portrayal of managing disability makes the story of the Hawking’s bond believable and compelling. Much of this is down to the committed performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. Redmayne has already received a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama and is a strong contender to win both the BAFTA and the Oscar. His is the type of performance award givers love: a real person who overcomes great adversity in the form of a disability that requires a difficult physical performance. Redmayne achieves a remarkable transformation, his motions and speech steadily becoming restricted as Stephen’s motor neuron disease progresses. Over the film’s narrative of forty years, Redmayne also ages into the role, becoming indistinguishable from popular images of Hawking, his face and body eventually fixed in a recognisable but not caricatured contortion. Redmayne continues to perform Stephen’s soul as well, his eyes speaking volumes of intelligence, sorrow and humour in the later scenes when Stephen becomes mute. But while Redmayne attracts the awards buzz, the equally-nominated Felicity Jones is just as impressive in the less showy role of Jane, and Jones shines in the role of a woman dealing with extraordinary pressure, enormous demands and difficult choices. Her performance is more subtle and restrained, never erupts into histrionics and generates significant empathy.
Perhaps ironically for a film about a scientist, the less effective aspects of The Theory of Everything relate to artistic choices about the science, both narratively and technically. Most grating is the cinematography: early sequences have a distracting blue filter, and many sequences are overexposed, the excessive light in the frame becoming off-putting, while a scene that should be a moving reunion is spoiled by an obvious and clumsy increase of sunlight. Many scenes are shot in soft focus, people’s faces as well as objects given an indistinct edge that makes the substance of the film too nostalgic, the inclusion of home movie footage adding to this unnecessary irritation. It is also disappointing that little is made of Stephen’s discoveries – mathematical equations may not be the most dramatic material, but scientific breakthroughs and Eureka moments can be, clichéd though they are (see Interstellar for an instance of using this cliché effectively). The film’s climax uses reversed action, echoing Jane’s earlier summary of Stephen’s research as “turn back the clock”, and this is also clunky and unconvincing. Overall, The Theory of Everything is an unbalanced equation: the human side of the story is well written and very well acted, but the science is less convincing, constituting both an underdeveloped narrative thread and distracting stylistic flashes.