Fears of taking the Oscar-bait with The Theory of Everything need not be fuelled: director James Marsh has handed down a skilful, visually stunning biopic of Dr Stephen Hawking. Having moved on from documentarian pursuits Man on Wire (2008) and Project Nim (2011), Marsh has proven himself a deft hand at handling dramatic material as well. The emotional undercurrent running throughout reduces the film to its very core – the tension at play between its two protagonists – and manages to eclipse the film’s setbacks: an unchallenging treatment of its material, and an occasionally overblown visual style.
Based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, the film portrays the relationship between Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his first wife Jane (Felicity Jones), from their courtship at Cambridge University to its end in the 1990s. Hawking is diagnosed in his twenties with motor neurone disease – shortly after their relationship begins – but Jane cannot be dissuaded to leave him. Instead, she is resolute in her decision to stay by his side and support him. They soon marry, have children, and the film sets off on its exploration of their loving but often fraught relationship. Moments of seeming ‘home’ footage speckled by film grain punctuate the film, bridging years of life and marriage as the film progresses.
The film has a wide array of characters, prominent and peripheral, but it finds its power and its potency in the moments reduced to the tension between Redmayne and Jones. Peppered with these instances throughout, both the performance of the film’s two leads and their direction by Marsh yields an affecting account of the difficult territory Theory seeks to traverse. In a film that could easily resort to rendering this material in as grandiose and huge a way as possible (something of which it isn’t entirely absolved), its subtlety is what truly elicits emotion from its audience. One such scene sees Jane crouched at the foot of Hawking’s chair after his recovery from a tracheotomy procedure, clutching a coloured letter-board with which she attempts to communicate with him. Hawking has lost his voice, but the piercing stare shared between Redmayne and Jones belies Hawking’s outward calm. The gulf between them widens, a kind of emotional cat’s cradle emerging. Hawking’s sense of betrayal vies for our attention with Jane’s guilt following a decision meant to save her husband. There are no straightforward answers here, and we are the ones caught in the complex set of strings woven back and forth, but this is the film’s delight. Even in scenes where Jane is shown supporting her husband at academic events, the looks passed between them are what draws us in. Redmayne and Jones both turn in affecting, nuanced performances; their power as performers is evident in their ability to draw the emotion out from subtler moments.
If this tactical restraint from Marsh is what makes the film, then occasional visual missteps undo some of his work within the film. Veteran cinematographer Benoît Delhomme delivers us a vision of Cambridge suffused with a glow, the soft light of which transports the onlooker straight into the idyllic Cambridge of the 1960s. Sporadic scenes are saturated with colour – reds, blues, yellows – and other scenes employ canted angles for a slightly off-kilter outlook. These devices are not used sparingly. Though the film is prevailingly beautiful, at times these visual strategic storytelling choices overpower the delicate emotional balance within a scene. The choice to track out from Hawking as he is given the news about his illness in a cold, desolate hospital hallway is one such example. Rather than allowing both the audience and Redmayne to linger in those few seconds, we are reminded of the scene’s inherent emotional value and impact.
Overall, Delhomme and Marsh’s chosen aesthetic for the film achieves a consistently dreamy feel that could been put further to use in depicting Hawking’s personal moments of academic investigation and triumph. The age-old question in biopics is what its focal point is perceived to be. In this case, Theory takes its cues from Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir, thereby focussing on the relationship between herself and Hawking. However, occasions of visual brilliance in the film give rare filmic insight into Hawking’s process – even if it may be a dramatic interpretation rather than the man himself at a desk as in real life. Glimpsing Hawking in a wide-angled shot posed in the frame against the entire chalk-scrawled expanse of a blackboard is gripping: here is the man behind the theories, as well as in front of them. (Delhomme really makes the most of the film’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio here.) Despite the film revolving around himself and his first wife, these moments drop away as the film moves on. Given their relationship was strained not least because of Hawking’s celebrity status for his unconventional and ground-breaking theories, the thought of more of these moments interspersed with Jane and Hawking’s evolving relationship is intriguing. Not addressing this intersection of the personal and public is a potential oversight, and hints to a more uncomplicated treatment of their relationship to each other.
Nevertheless: these are minor complaints. It may have obtained Oscar buzz, but James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything does largely what it promises to – and though it might be straightforward, this isn’t a negative at all.
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