The Theory of Everything

So, if the Golden Globes are anything to go by, which they usually are, it looks like the Oscars are going to be a two-man competition for Best Actor between Eddie Redmayne for his Stephen Hawking, and Michael Keaton for Birdman.

The Theory of Everything, which was 10 years in development, is an adaptation of Jane Hawking’s memoire of her life with Stephen. They meet as new graduates in Cambridge and embark on an old fashioned romance which centres round a meeting of minds rather than more traditional courting activities. It is while working for his PhD that Stephen has his bombshell diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease, now commonly known as ALS and notorious for the ice bucket challenge. He is told that he only has two years to live and prepares to hibernate for his remaining life.

 Jane, not deterred, stands by him and they marry, and go on to have three children. Now well over 70, Stephen Hawking is still alive.  On Woman’s Hour recently, in a very dignified interview, when asked if she would do anything differently, Jane acknowledged that sacrificing her PhD to devote herself to Stephen was hard, and that had she known that the prognosis was incorrect, things might have been different. 

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne are superb in their respective roles as Jane and Stephen Hawking. Redmayne only met Hawking for three hours, during which he said but eight sentences, but studied him on film clips and spent hours practising facial expressions in the mirror, even having dancing lessons to learn how to control his body to emulate the gait of an ALS patient; on set between takes he remained hunched in his wheel chair in order to maintain his character – to the detriment of his spine and posture. His resulting portrayal and resemblance to Hawking is uncanny; Hawking himself has endorsed the film by lending props such as his PhD thesis, his Medal of Freedom, and even his voice; he has said that at times he feels as if he is watching himself. What a tribute!

The sweetness and goodness of Jane Hawking shine out of Felicity Jones in her understated yet poignant portrayal of the devoted wife and carer. Life with Stephen is certainly not easy as, initially, beforeA Brief History of Timemakes their fortune, they are not at all well off and have no mod cons for the disabled: Stephen has to haul himself upstairs (no stairlift), be fed and watered, wheeled around until the electric wheelchair arrives, and be carried. All this she does uncomplainingly and lovingly, finding solace in the church choir where she meets her future husband, with whom both she and Stephen enjoy a close friendship as he becomes a pillar of support for the growing Hawking family.

Achieving fame and wealth is the undoing of the relationship: a new carer in the form of Maxine Peake arrives, who soon takes over. The moment when Stephen tells Jane that Elaine is accompanying him to the USA is the heartbreaking death-knell to Jane’s devotion, although one is left wondering whether Stephen is in fact setting her free. Jane Hawking and Felicity Jones met and Jane is on record saying that she feels Felicity ‘was me…as she has captured my mannerisms’. Two truly remarkable performances.

As for the film itself, the first two thirds are emotionally riveting. I find myself trying hard not to cry: having stared death in the face myself, I feel a deep empathy with Stephen Hawking in the early days of his ALS diagnosis and the first few years of wondering if he is going to make it. His extraordinary sense of humour, something I also find a great comfort, carries him through his illness, even when he is reliant on a voice simulator, just as Jane seeks solace in her Catholicism. 

A Brief History of Timemay be one of the most bought books, having sold over 10 million copies, but it also remains the most unread! I was grateful that the film makes an attempt, in layman’s language, to explain Hawking’s theories on time, black holes and the search for the simple equation that would explain everything. However, in having to complete the story the final third of the film loses its emotional intensity somewhat, but it does not detract from the overall impact.

And then there’s Cambridge! As a former student, the trip down memory lane is always fun; the Lady Doctor, my companion to the film, reminisces about how she used to sit next to Stephen at the University library, and he would rap the table when he wanted his page turned! Another Cambridge contemporary, Simon McBurney, lights up our screen as Mr Hawking senior, and there are other familiar faces from British theatre to enjoy – such as David Thewlis and Emily Watson.Back to the awards – admittedly I haven’t yet seen Birdman(Son hated it!) or Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing, but Redmayne’s performance is mesmerisingly extraordinary and I back him all the way.

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