When the weepy “triumph over adversity” films start flood the multiplexes in time for the Oscars it would be easy to roll your eyes and dismiss them all as melodramatic claptrap. I’m sure many do.
But, although this film clearly fits into that catch-all, derisive category heading, and is quite obviously released now with the purpose of taking the Oscars by storm, The Theory of Everything manages to pretty much sidestep the melodrama, conventional love story and emotional manipulation of many biopics to become a thoroughly enjoyable and triumphant achievement.
Directed by James Marsh (the maker of beautiful documentary Man On Wire) The Theory of Everything follows Steven Hawking as he embarks on his PHD in Physics not long before falling for a girl and being diagnosed with the Motor Neurone Disease he has become synonymous with. Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement, though, is that we are never positioned to feel sorry for this extraordinary man and his equally extraordinary situation. In fact we are constantly reminded how lucky he is.
Because really, this is not about Hawking’s condition but his life and achievements – although the disease does obviously play a part. The message the film delivers is one of the enduring power – and sometimes the weakness – of love. Through his relationship with Jane (who would become his wife) we see possibly the most realistic glimpse into any kind of relationship in a major film for years. It is a warts and all portrayal of the sacrifices, success and difficulties of love. And for that it is truly wonderful. The fact it is an unconventional love story (for both Hawking’s condition and other developments I won’t ruin in case you’re not familiar with his life story) just goes to enhance the enjoyment of what is already an engaging watch.
Marsh and Benoit Delhomme (the director of photography, who has previously worked on the extraordinary Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) make the film look beautiful with some impressively imaginative camera work. In particular, a wonderfully framed low angle shot of Hawking in his Cambridge dorm room and a brainwave striking with a jumper over a head go to show how a film which could so easily consist only of people conversing becomes a visual treat too. But the film’s main strength is certainly not its photography (though tremendous) but its formidable performances.
Playing an iconic figure is never easy but playing one with a debilitating condition is surely one of the most difficult imaginable. Yet, Eddie Redmayne (who I found tedious in Les Miserables) puts in a show stopping performance as Mr Hawking. Somehow, he makes you forget the distinctive scientist as being anyone other than this man on screen, such is the transformation. Although he’s in for tough competition, this performance is sure to land Oscars – and rightly so. At his side is Felicity Jones who until now has been a talented but fringe British actress. No more. In a, perhaps less flashy role than Redmayne’s, she sparkles with grace and subtlety. The complex role is nuanced and layered unlike so many ‘one note’ love interst roles in this kind of biopic (credit to a cracking script by Anthony McCarten).
The Theory of Everything is an engrossing and surprisingly complex drama which, though ostensibly about a genius with a disability, never strays too far into melodrama or cliche but instead deals with the difficult reality of love in different situations and the strength of one’s will to achieve a dream. Filled with extraordinary performances from lead and support actors, James Marsh’s foray into fiction is a spellbinding achievement.