The Theory of Everything
Directed by James Marsh
Screenplay by Anthony McCarten
Based on the book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking by Jane Hawking
Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking
Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking
Charlie Cox as Jonathan Hellyer-Jones
Maxine Peake as Elaine Mason
David Thewlis as Dennis Sciama (Stephen’s doctoral supervisor)
Harry Lloyd as Brian (Stephen’s room mate)
Simon McBurney as Stephen’s father
Abigail Cruttenden as Stephen’s mother
Of course I haven’t read it. Of course there’s a copy on the bookshelf. Of course I’m not going to read it now. A Brief History of Time it may be called, but life is too short, or rather my concentration is too weak. As second hand bookshops will tell you, “mint” is the default condition for second-hand copies. Critics of the film protest that the film does little or nothing to expound his theories or show their importance. I thought they handled the science just right … just enough to make you feel they knew what they were talking about without having to worry unduly.
A Stephen Hawking biopic, and a romance at that, is an unprepossessing pitch for a major movie, but here it is, and Eddie Redmayne may suffer at the various awards ceremonies because so many people have predicted an easy victory far in advance. Felicity Jones as the female lead is someone we remember fondly from Cemetery Junction (review linked) and is also tipped as Best Actress. The release in the UK comes a full two months after its American debut. It has Golden Globes nominations in all the major categories.
On the Graham Norton Show, Redmayne told a lovely “how I put my foot in it” anecdote about his meetings with Stephen Hawking, and how he enthused away chattily, because you have to wait so long for a response from the voice machine. Redmayne had blurted out that he felt empathy because they were both Capricorn … a long silence while the voice machine did its work and he heard “I am an astronomer. Not an astrologer.” Incidentally, towards the end it is Stephen Hawking’s own synthesized voice in the film.
Redmayne has also pointed out that as films are not shot chronologically (a brief problem with time there) but shot according to locations, as an actor he had to be able to perform at Stephen Hawking’s various levels of disability wherever they were. As there are many stages of deterioration, switching back and forth between them is a phenomenal task resulting in a phenomenal performance. If you view images of Hawking and Redmayne it is very difficult to tell them apart. Both leads are nominated for awards, and rightly so. The camera spends a lot of time on Felicity Jones’s close ups and hers is another exquisitely nuanced performance, an essay in facial expression. Make up has her going from fresh-faced young girl to her twenties and thirties with barely perceptible but definite ageing. At the end, when she is at Buckingham Palace with Stephen to get his Companion of Honour you can see wrinkles on her neck. They’re not there earlier. We both noticed them. I don’t think they would have let their kids frolic with such abandon in the palace gardens.
It is based on Jane Hawking’s own book, and I have to say the point of view stays with her. We feel “on her side” about the burgeoning gentle relationship with the choirmaster, Jonathan, and maybe this is Felicity Jones’s charisma adding to identification. Charlie Cox has a lovely supporting role in this part, and as Jonathan became her second husband, this may be another example of her point of view. He creates an extremely sympathetic character. Hawking was given two years to live circa 1963. Fifty years have passed. His survival is a tribute to his sheer mental power, but also to the love and care of Jane Hawking. The relationship is tender, and her determination to help him fight through it all is powerful.
The Guardian complained that they skated over the exact nature of the “four people in the marriage” – Jane, Stephen, Jonathan (as family friend and helper) and the full-time nurse, Elaine. I thought they were as explicit as you need to be, when Jane goes over to Jonathan’s separate tent and calls his name. This coincides with Stephen’s dramatic collapse at the opera in Switzerland, thus piling on her sense of guilt. Maybe The Guardian reviewer slipped out to the loo at that point. I feel grateful to be spared seeing the exact detailed mechanical nature of Jane and Stephen’s marital relations. Elaine grins as she shows him Penthouse magazine, and in the crude words of the 60s, she looks adept and strong wristed for the task in hand.
I was puzzled by the apparent Swiss mountains setting for the opera and transport to an air ambulance, as both of us clearly heard “Bordeaux” which I didn’t recall as either mountainous or Swiss. Maybe they had said Montreaux, though that’s the opposite end of the lake to Geneva which is mentioned as the location on IMDB.
There is considerable time compression in the film, it all seems to happen quite fast, though in reality they met in 1963, married in 1965, had children in 1967 and 1970, then a long gap to the third child in 1979. Time gets compressed … well, I guess that’s what his book’s about.
The film premiere showing in front of Professor Hawking himself brought tears to his eyes. I reckon that was a common reaction in the general public.
In general, 1963 then the rest of the 1960s and 1970s is lovingly and accurately created. We agreed that all Jane’s clothes “look right” all the way through as do cars and furniture and TV sets. We had a Mini Clubman Estate just like the one in the film in 1977 (it was a very rusty mid 60s model).
Overall, both leads deserve an Oscar. So does the director. The use of light and murkiness at the edges is beautiful. Give one to the writer too. The story flowed and the dialogue never once jarred.
ANACHRONISMS, or brief lapses of time
I’m going to have to be a complete bastard and catch a brief problem with time, right at the start. In early 1963, Jane hands Stephen a napkin with her telephone number on it … 0223 (12345 or whatever). While Cambridge is now 01223, the original STD code was 0223. Ah, but all number dialling codes first appeared in major cities in 1966, and then not outside them. Even in 1972, when I got my first phone, all number dialling had not reached us, and the number was Castle Hill (12345), not 01202 (12345). Hawking’s college has black payphones with buttons A & B. These were for calls via an operator. She would certainly have expressed her number as Cambridge (12345) or simply, in a local situation then, as (12345). It was only recently that you had to use an area code for local calls on the same exchange … I still forget to do it.
I was surprised that her parents seemed to live in Cambridge too, and so did Stephen’s. It was rare in the 1960s in England to attend a university in your home town. Moving elsewhere was part of the experience. In fact his parents lived in St. Albans, and Jane grew up there too. Coincidence? It’s the sort of thing you’d mention on meeting. He appears to pick her up for the May Ball outside her parents’ house all dressed up and ready to go. St Albans is 45 miles from Cambridge and this is pre-motorway days, but let’s face it, Cambridge looks its glowing dreamy best throughout the film, so that was a good call. Imagine it’s all in Cambridge.
So while being a Brief Nerd With Time, I’ve got another. They first meet some time before the 1963 May Ball (which is held in June). As a Sunday lunch gets in between the two dance events, let’s say at least two weeks before. The music is Martha & The Vandellas “Heat Wave.” The American release was July 1963, but Britain … as I remembered … was late in the year. I just checked: October release, and I recall it at Christmas parties. Still … right year, six months too early, and I rather doubt Cambridge science students being hip enough to play Motown that early, and it was not a hit in Britain anyway. They all look like trad jazz fans to me. My excuse for knowing this is that I wrote the Martha & The Vandellas “Toppermost” (linked) and it was such a major hit because it was released during a West Coast July heat wave, and became a July / August US hit.
I think the firework display is very definitely 21st century (but all the better for it).
I meant of course to check all the baffling calculations Stephen writes on the huge blackboard, but hey … it’s a film!
AWARDS SEASON NOTES
I vowed not to go back and alter reviews as the awards come in. I was three-quarters wrong. Eddie Redmayne gets the Golden Globe for Best Actor.
Then Eddie Redmayne got Best Actor in the big on, the Oscars, as predicted.