And so there was a big bang and then… A brief history of Stephen Hawking came to pass. An as Englishman I sometimes forget that, as a global power, we punch massively above our weight. Particularly when it comes to producing bona fide geniuses.
In recent months The Imitation Game hit the cinemas, charting the life of the brilliant Alan Turing, the man who cracked the enigma device during WWII – expertly played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
And now we have another Englishman stepping into the ring… Eddie Redmayne. Putting in a very fine performance as Stephen Hawking. Based on the book Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen by his wife Jane Wilde Hawking (Felicity Jones), we cover a lot in this film. From his early beginnings as a student in Cambridge through to worldwide fame and recognition.
Right from the off we delve straight into the main factors that shaped who he was. His professor (David Thewlis) at Cambridge sets the class a task of ten impossible questions, everyone fails except Stephen who, in a bit of a rush, answers nine of them on the back of a train timetable.
Within the first few minutes of the film we also meet Jane, the woman who becomes the loving constant behind the man. Felicity Jones is yet to put a foot wrong in her career and as Jane she is perfectly cast: elegant, womanly, beautiful and with a bit of an edge. Stephen, like the rest of us, become instantly captivated. And as a couple they suit each other well, as Redmayne and Jones have a very natural and believable chemistry.
As Stephen’s condition (motor neuron disease) worsens, Jane becomes the driving force of the narrative, caring for both Stephen and their growing brood of young children (apparently sexual organs are unaffected by the disease as they operate using a completely different system).
Together, the writer Anthony McCarten and director James Marsh weave the story together well. It trots along at a good pace and we’re not overwhelmed by the science and maths of it all. Like Interstellar a few months ago, science serves the story. Indeed, the consultant on that film, Kip Thorne, gets a mention here, as someone with whom Stephen has a bet. The prize being a subscription to Penthouse magazine. This point is telling as we get an insight into Stephen’s character, as he has quite a devilish sense of humour. All the more heartwarming given his condition.
It might seem trite to say but Redmayne really transforms himself, going full Verbal Kint and then some. To give a performance where for half the movie you have to greatly limit the way you speak must have been tough. In some ways it’s like actors who have to wear a mask that covers all or part of their face; in that you have to find other ways to convey the emotions of your character to the audience. And Redmayne does just that, bookish, shy, inquisitive and intelligent and at times intense, yet disarmingly likeable. Characters are drawn to him. This is evident with his fans and admirers, but more specifically with those closer to him: his speech therapist, his professor and old Cambridge friends and, obviously, his wife Jane.
This is where Marsh treads a masterful balancing act as director, blending together the relationship and affection Stephen and Jane have for each other, whilst at the same time keeping the audience drawn into Stephen’s rise as a world-renowned theoretical physicist.
As far as biopics – and indeed films in general – go it’s spirited, heartfelt, tragic and engaging; part love story part think piece. It’s one of those that will have the words ‘feel good’ and ‘life-affirming’ plastered all over the marketing material. But for once, without sounding cynical, that’s spot on.