The Theory of Everything

Year: 2014
Studio: Focus Features
Director: James Marsh
Writer: Anthony McCarten
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis

There's only one surer bet at Oscar time than a gay genius, and that's a disabled genius. You can almost imagine Redmayne and Cumberbatch in a boxing ring flapping their hands at each other like proper Englishmen. If Hawking had been gay in real life the contest would've been over when screenwriter Anthony McCarten hit the first key in Final Draft.

It makes you wonder how many times the filmmakers, scriptwriter and producers had awards in their eyes while they were preparing and making this movie. Not that there's any doubt they wanted to make a good and entertaining film, but the warm hues, the structure and the performances almost have neon signs telegraphing their prestige aims.

Fortunately, they reach most of the high marks they're aiming for, especially star Eddie Redmayne as hero Stephen Hawking. In what must have been an actor's wet dream, his voice, face and body gradually contorts as motor neurone disease (ALS) takes over him is one of the best performances you've seen in the last year – even if it's one of the showiest. He also did it all out of chronological order thanks to the filming schedule, jumping from completely immobile to the initial bodily twitches and everything in between.

It'll certainly help scour memories of the petulant boy villain in Jupiter Ascending out of our brains. He's probably the only person alive who's glad the Wachowskis' space opus is performing so badly, figuring not many will see the embarrassing turn he gives his character.

The Theory of Everything does a nice job of staging the major events in Hawking's life considering it covers about 40 years of his family history. As a shuffling, quintessentially English boarding school prodigy, he's inspired by a university professor (David Thewlis) to investigate the physics of time, embarking on a sweetly awkward romance with Jane (Felicity Jones) around the same time.

With everything looking up, doctors give Stephen the worst possible news about the fainting spells and muscle weaknesses he's been experiencing – he has two years to live thanks to Lou Gehrig's disease.

As we all know history proved them very wrong, and Hawking goes on to be one of the greatest minds in modern science thanks to his book A Brief History of Time. The rest of the story is fairly straightforward and free of subtext. There's one narrative motif about time – how it works in a cosmological sense and how little of it we have in our lives – but the story doesn't get too bogged down in tricksy symbolism, it just tells itself.

Initially reduced to dragging himself up and down the stairs like a drunk, eventually all Stephen can move is a single muscle next to his eye, from which he drives his wheelchair and uses the computerised voice we all know.

We see him attacked by the bout of pneumonia in Europe that needed an emergency tracheotomy and took away the last of his voice, his relationship with his parents and family and to a lesser extent his continuing advances in astrophysics. The story also shows you Jane's plight as she turns more into a nursemaid than a wife. When the local priest who leads the choir at her church becomes a surrogate helper for the Hawking family, only he can see her exhaustion and sacrifice, and it threatens to turn their friendship into something more.

It could have been just another biopic, and the way it tells the story without any interpretive filters makes it only slightly impressive in itself, but Redmayne's transformation is the best example of the art and craft of acting we have from recent times. The film is all his.

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