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The Theory of Everything – making history

Chris Lynch

Topics Culture

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Having cleaned up in the awards season, The Theory of Everything might look, to the outsider, like little more than soft-focus Oscar bait. But if you still, somehow, haven’t seen it yet – do.

After the high-minded preachiness of The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything shows how to make a biographic film properly. It’s sensitively performed but remains untouched by artificial moralism. Director James Marsh treats the viewer like an adult and, refreshingly, there isn’t a hint of him even trying to beatify or criminalise the past.

The film tells the story of physicist Stephen Hawking (portrayed commendably by Eddie Redmayne) and his 30-year-long marriage to his first wife Jane Wilde (portrayed primly and properly by Felicity Jones). Starting out as gawky university sweethearts, tragedy descends upon the young, erudite couple when, at the fecund age of 23, Hawking is diagnosed with motor neuron disease. ‘There’s nothing I can do, I’m afraid’, laments the suited-up doctor. ‘I’d give you two years at most.’

The film is, in essence, a bittersweet romance, though one that affirms the human commitment to strive for better, to overcome the cynics, to scale the cosmos and conquer nature. Fittingly, the film looks fantastic. Shot in the stunning city of Cambridge, its highlights include a scene at a May ball, in which Stephen and Jane share a dance under the flaming summer sky. Such scenes are poignant, but Hawking is presented as almost too human. You’re left a little bewildered, wondering what this supposedly great mind’s brilliant ideas were. One could be forgiven for thinking the story is just one of a smarter-than-average handicapped bloke who found a doting wife. In seeking to tell a romantic tale, the full potential of such a unique individual life is, inevitably, wasted.

Underlying the whole film is Hawking’s physical deterioration. Redmayne is magnificent in his portrayal of the waste and despair of bodily decline. In some discrete way, he gets a little worse every time the viewer sees him: a squint of the eye, a catch in the throat. Alongside Jones’ elegant portrayal of a woman desperately seeking to do the right thing in a ruthless world, Redmayne succeeds in capturing the humour and willpower of a resilient man who refuses to be defeated by disability, and instead opts for celebrity, humour and even sexual conquest.

This film is too sophisticated to be a morality tale. But if there is a destination to the movie, it’s this: men make their own history, but not under circumstances of their own choosing. Without deifying him, Hawking has assuredly made history. He is one of the few figures of this historical moment who will be remembered. This film, in taking the viewer seriously, is as dignified a tribute to Hawking’s legacy, and to the possibility of human endurance, as anything you’re likely to see. If anything’s worthy of some industry gongs, it’s that.

Chris Lynch is a student at the University of Cambridge.

Watch the trailer for The Theory of Everything:

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