On paper, this adaptation of Jane Hawking's memoir of married life with her husband seems the perfect fit for a certain tradition of English quality drama, the sort that is carried by the performances and would be equally at home on television or on the big screen. And the fact that Ms. Hawking's husband is world-renowned physicist, and certified genius, Stephen Hawking, who has lived and worked most of his life with the neurodegenerative disease ALS, also pushes it into inspirational true story territory tailor-made for the awards season.
Thankfully, then, this latest production from the Working Title stable was somehow handed out to award-winning documentary filmmaker James Marsh, hot off the excellent (and seriously underrated) Troubles drama Shadow Dancer. That film reversed its apparent thriller angle with a more character-driven tone; in The Theory of Everything, Mr. Marsh upends the traditional "inspirational biopic" approach by avoiding any sense of overt emotional manipulation and - to quote from a song - "accentuate the positive" in the improbable life and love story of Stephen and Jane, from their meet-cute at Cambridge in the early 1960s to the physicist's recognition by Queen Elizabeth II in 1989, soon after they had divorced.
Since this is an adaptation of her book, the film makes no excuses about telling that story through their eyes and not those of the world outside, shifting between their complementary point of views, using "fake" period footage to introduce each "chapter" in their life together, then using a heightened, crisp palette of colours to underline the vitality and practicality of their relationship. Instead of the usual tearjerking approach to inspirational melodrama, Mr. Marsh goes for a celebration of the moment, relying on two remarkable performances utterly, minutely attuned to one another, working in perfect tandem - the concept of "ensemble performance" has never been so true as in the push-and-pull between Felicity Jones as Jane and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen.
While Ms. Jones has by nature a more reactive role, she is by no means passive as she picks up the physical slack, and responds attentively to Mr. Redmayne's sheer presence; his performance captures delicately, with no showboating and often a twinkle in the eye, the progression of the disease, effectively becoming entirely reliant on body and face language. Mr. Marsh makes no apologies for using Jóhann Jóhannsson's sweeping score and DP Benoît Delhomme's often candy-coloured widescreen images to underline the transcending and celebratory nature of this marriage that succeeded against all odds - but it's a game that he is fully aware and that he plays with loyalty and wit, respecting Mr. Hawking's well-known sense of humour and refusing to pull any tearjerking punches. It's a much smarter, and much better, film than all appearances suggested.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
USA, United Kingdom, Japan 2014
Cast Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, David Thewlis
Director James Marsh; screenwriter Anthony McCarten; based on the memoir by Jane Hawking Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen; cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (colour, widescreen); composer Jóhann Jóhannsson; designer John Paul Kelly; costumes Steven Noble; editor Jinx Godfrey; producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce and Mr. McCarten; production companies Universal Pictures and Working Title Films in association with Dentsu and Fuji Television Network
Screened January 23rd 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor press screening)