“There should be no boundaries to human endeavour. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there is life, there is hope”. A robotic voice speaks these words to a hall full of students and academics, towards the end of the film, The Theory of Everything. The man who says them is renowned physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking.
The film is a biopic of Hawking’s life, who is one of the biggest celebrity scientists of the 20th century. Many, who know of him, have never read his theories which try and marry the physics of the macro-world (the theory of relativity) and the micro-world (quantum physics). Yet his name is synonymous with human endeavour.
The Theory of Everything begins with a party, where a young Stephen (played by Eddie Redmayne) and Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) meet. It is 1963 and the courtship is a sweet and innocent romance between a geeky scientist with skew glasses and a Catholic literature student. The relationship blossoms while the 21-year old Stephen tries to find a topic for his PhD at Cambridge. He becomes increasingly clumsy, until a massive fall on campus, leads to a devastating diagnosis: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS (remember the ice bucket challenge?). The disease is degenerative. He will lose his ability to walk, talk, or move any part of his body, while his brain will remain active. He is given a mere two years to live.
Jane resists Stephen’s attempts to push her away, and the two marry. Even as his body starts to fail him, Stephen relentlessly pursues his goal of applying the theorem of a space-time singularity at the end of a black hole, to the entire universe. But this is not a story about science; it is about people, and not the HBO-version either. Jane and Stephen’s marriage feels real, and her brave quest to be all and everything to Stephen, while raising their three children and trying to complete her own studies, does eventually take its toll.
The Theory of Everything is a gripping, heartrending and human story, told beautifully and with understanding. Most cinemagoers leave with swollen eyes and red noses. And yet, the film has lightness to it. As he did with his tense documentary, Man on Wire, director James Marsh depicts the pinnacle of human endeavour. The Theory of Everything is about the battle, both physical and emotional, to reach beyond the ordinary and the ultimate triumph of doing so, not only for Stephen, but for Jane as well.
The film was nominated for best picture at the Oscars, and didn’t win, but its lead actor, Eddie Redmayne, kicked dust in the eyes of his fellow nominees to take home the award. Redmayne is phenomenal in a physically demanding role. His painstaking depiction of Stephen’s bodily regression – the muscle twitching as he tries to write on a blackboard, the way his limbs shrink into themselves, his hands pulling into claws, his head caught forever in a tilt towards his right shoulder – is exceptional. He captures Stephen’s wit, his insatiable curiosity about life and his desire to make a lasting contribution to scientific knowledge.
Felicity Jones is also remarkable as Jane Hawking, whose determination to love Stephen regardless of his death sentence, seems almost impossible. It is on her memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, that the film is based.
The cinematography is striking and the shots fluid, to show the beauty of the night sky or to mirror Stephen’s fascination with black holes as he watches the cream in his coffee swirl into a singularity.
Stephen Hawking is now 72 years old and has defied all expectations. The Theory of Everything has done the same for biopics, avoiding the traditional pitfalls of the genre, instead providing a riveting and intensely personal study of a great human being, with all his faults and his relationship with those around him.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis
Release date: 27 February 2015 at Ster Kinekor cinemas.