02 January 2015

"What's the Equation? That's the Question"

In my capacity as a press officer for a scientific journal, I was excited last month to receive a phone call from the distribution company working on The Theory of Everything — James Marsh's new movie about Stephen Hawking and Hawking's first wife, Jane Wilde. They were inviting someone from our journal to the film's London premiere last month, but somewhat unsurprisingly, they were after one of our journalists and I didn't get to go.

I finally got to see the film on New Year's Day and I really enjoyed it. Sure, it could have been more tightly edited and at times it felt a little like a film about a love triangle that just happened to contain one of the most famous physicists of all time. It's worth going to see for Eddie Redmayne's strong central performance as Hawking from his days as a young PhD student to more recent times. The physical transformation is striking and Redmayne certainly deserves the award nominations that are starting to roll in.

The film opens in 1963, when Hawking is a brilliant PhD student trying to decide what to specialise in. At a party, he meets linguist Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), and the two form an instant connection. They have barely had time to fall in love before Hawking is diagnosed with motor neuron disease and handed down a two-year life expectancy. Nonetheless, he and Jane marry and he successfully defends his PhD on the creation of the Universe and the history of time. The film can't avoid Hawking's research, of course, but the focus is very much on his relationship with Jane — as you would expect given that it is based on her memoir — and the toll the years of caring for him took on her.

For me, the film brought back more nostalgia of my own time as a student at Cambridge. Most of the film was shot at my old college, St John's — Hawking wasn't a student or fellow there, but it is one of the largest and most beautiful colleges, especially come May Ball season. My team at work also helped the production company to produce fictionalised versions of the front cover of our journal from the 1970s, so I was very proud to see them all lined up in a bookshop window during the film.

The Theory of Everything is a sweet and moving film, but never gets too bogged down in its own sentimentality. This is mainly down to the great performances from Redmayne and Jones, who are both very well cast. Time and its relative speed are also used in interesting ways in the film. The jump from glorious Cambridge scenes of Hawking and Jane dancing at a May Ball to the wheelchair-bound man who needs assistance with eating and then sleeping is all too sudden. But then time slows down to the extent that it's hard to tell how much time has elapsed by the end of the film (more than 30 years, for sure). The film has its funny moments too, and this reflects Hawking's famed wit and sense of humour: we see him chasing his nurse around the living room in his wheelchair with a cardboard box on his head, with his speech synthesiser saying, "exterminate! Exterminate!"

Some may argue that there is too much emphasis on the (romantic) chemistry and not enough on the (v. hard) physics, but I think director James Marsh, whose works include the excellent Project Nim and Shadow Dancer, has told an engaging and very human story about a brilliant man and the woman who loved him.

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