As much as the origins of the cosmos can preoccupy the thoughts of the physicist, director James Marsh’s Stephen Hawking biopic raises one universal question. For all the black holes in the universe, has anyone ever woken up and wanted to see a big screen Hawking drama?
Filling this dubious void in the market, The Theory of Everything has garnered sufficient acclaim to shoot both its protagonists, Eddie Redmayne’s Hawking and Felicity Jones’ Jane, Hawking’s first wife, to Golden Globe nominations. For these underrated, yet often quietly exceptional actors, this nod from Oscar’s most prestigious head has the feel of a potential breakthrough. Just a fortnight now until the red is rolled, the gold buffed and the white table cloths primly placed, the two Brits can be fully satisfied ahead of their champagne chugging, champion of an evening.
The Hollywood glamour seemed but a dream for a pair who have more often toiled in the global anonymity of the BBC’s Original British Dramas and an avalanche of costume dramas. A tentative trawl down their respective biographies finds a strikingly similar CV that has brought each to this career apogee. Corsets and tails on, lathered and laced, both have found it hard enough to break into the twentieth, let alone the twenty first century. Overlooking Redmayne’s recent aberration, Jupiter Ascending, and Jones’ link to Star Wars spin-off, Furious 7, both are traditional costume characters for the early evening audience.
In a casual game of IMDB top trumps, trade WW1: Redmayne’s Captain Wraysford in the BBC adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, for WW2: Jones’ Margot Frank in mini-series, The Diary of Anne Frank. Swap Felicity’s period appearances in Northanger Abbey and Brideshead Revisited, for Eddie’s Angel Clare in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the parallel picture continues. Even their previous big screen highlights: Redmayne’s Marius in 2012’s star-studded Les Miserables and Jones’s excellent support opposite Ralph Fiennes in Dickens biopic The Invisible Woman, came dripping with nineteenth century nostalgia. To such an extent that a table at the Golden Globe Awards ceremony on the 22nd, February 2015 seems like time travel itself.
Now back to just that: time. For a film about a genius cosmologist, there is a duplicitous avoidance of any real grappling with theories, equations and mathematical truths. David Thewlis, in a reprisal of his role as Hogwarts professor, Remus Lupin offers the token science, only battling blackboards rather than dementors. Instead, drawing inspiration from Jane Hawking’s memoir of their thirty year relationship, Travelling to Infinity, we focus on a very different type of physics. Let’s get physical: the physics of physicality. When not bonking his wife, showcasing the art of procreation (though there is no suggestion of Jane’s difficulty banging a man suffering from motor-neurone disease, with a slice of sexism it is only announced that Stephen’s erotic system is ‘automatic’) we are given a worryingly holistic, life-affirming smooch that smacks of sentimentalism. The emphasis switches from the main man himself to the exploration of the familial and its admixture of platonic love and lascivious lust. For Stephen, this comes in the shapely form of Maxine Peake who plays Elaine Mason, Hawking’s carer first and second wife later, whose arrival ends his thirty three years of marriage to Jane.
Meanwhile, as can be expected from the source material, the film’s focal lens lands on Jane. Though this is to the detriment of the biopic, it is the making of the film because Felicity Jones is such a nuanced joy to behold onscreen. As much as is praiseworthy in Redmayne’s realisation of pain and the contortion of the body into that iconic position, Jones can not rely on the purely physical to realise the emotional pathos of her character. Instead, all is conveyed through those azure domes of eyes that resound with the tender delicacy of a soul so devoted. The actress realises the existentialism of Jane’s feelings for local parish musician Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox) whose advent into proceedings fires the film’s furnace. The quintessential Hollywood love triangle, complete with the black and white competition between love and lust arrives right on cue. Only it is devoid of any cringeworthy stereotyping due to the powerful simplicity of Anthony McCarten’s script and the emotive purity of Jones’ beautifully conflicted performance.
This combination saves what otherwise could have been a documentary titled: The Evolution of the Electric Wheelchair. It is a film rendered serviceable by allowing simplicity to showcase the complexity of relationships. This owes a large debt to the quality of the two leads: Redmayne and Jones who now look set to power through the second half of the decade and eat up the awards and accolades they surely deserve.
But there remains that one great, unanswered question. Who does want to go out on a Saturday night and watch a film about Stephen Hawking? Well, you probably should, but still…