Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) is a gifted but unfocused graduate student in physics when he meets Jane (Jones). Their romance, however, must survive his devastating diagnosis of motor neurone disease as he begins the work that will consume him.
It is an encouraging sign, for those who doubt cinema’s capacity for intelligence, that two films within a couple of months have examined the human condition through the medium of astrophysics, incidentally making reference to the works of Kip Thorne. For those who found Interstellar a little cold or its scale a little overwhelming, this biopic of Thorne’s great contemporary and friend, Professor Stephen Hawking, may be the warmer and more human option.
Aside from a brief flashback framing device, this is a fairly straightforward account. The young Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a graduate student working towards his doctorate. When we meet him, he is remarkable as much for his haphazard work ethic as his aptitude; a sort of Oxbridge everyman, he cheerfully coxes the rowing team and plays Wagner too loudly. But Hawking describes his subject as “everything”, narrowing it down only as far as “time”, handily showing that his ambition has already outstripped his diligence.
Tragically, there are foreshadowings of a different sort: a lurching walk, a shaking hand. While Hawking’s romance with Felicity Jones’ Jane Wilde initially has a tinge of fairy tale — dancing on a bridge, bathed in the glow of fireworks — shadows threaten. Even as the arts graduate adjusts to the social oddities of her scientist admirer, she has to decide whether their relationship can endure a disease that seems certain to end his life, and soon. She sits, steely-eyed, to declare her devotion when his father tries to warn her off, and forces Hawking himself to find a path through.
The realities of that steady erosion test both their limits, as the disease rides roughshod through Hawking and strips away his independence. Unquestionably the physical transformation of the year, Redmayne adopts Hawking’s ravaged form as he shrinks into the familiar figure of modern times. A stick becomes two, a wheelchair looms, and then as Jane is teaching their children to walk, Hawking is losing the same capacity. Finally, his voice is silenced and his work thereby threatened, the hardest trial of all for the gregarious scholar.
Jones’ performance communicates the subtle sense that Jane thought she could endure the short life sentence Hawking was initially given but begins to quail when she realises that he will survive decades more, steadily needing more and more care. Hawking, meanwhile, obsesses over his great work and sometimes neglects the strains on his less lauded other half — but he never loses his humour, or his charm, a twinkle in his eye surviving through all but his worst days. Perhaps, like Beethoven losing his hearing, Hawking’s disease didn’t so much hinder his work as remove the distractions. Still, these two extraordinarily intelligent people display a mutual respect and consideration, even as their marriage threatens to fail, that would put many more traditionally successful marriages to shame. There are moments where they seem too easy on each other, as if this story has been lightly sanitised for public consumption somewhere between history and memoir and screen, but the overwhelming impression is that of a couple trying hard to do what’s best, and sometimes not quite managing it. With so many movie marriages either flagrantly unhappy or barely sketched, it’s inspiring to see a deeply felt commitment that proved crucial in unlocking some of the secrets of the universe.
A compassionate and inspiring look at an extraordinary life, anchored by two of the best performances of the year.