James Marsh’s biopic of Steven Hawking takes as its primary source his wife Jane’s published accounts of her life with the world-renowned scientist; from the early days of his academic development of the black hole theorem, and the tragic onset of motor neurone disease from which he famously suffers.
Eddie Redmayne’s intense, physically demanding performance is by far the film’s best asset. Redmayne undergoes an extraordinary series of transformations as we see Hawking through the first stages of his disease, combining physical distortion and emotional trauma to harrowing effect. The close up scenes of Hawking studying his own limbs with fear and amazement as they diverge from his commands are incredibly effective, and give an insight into the real horror of the disease. If Yates had only focussed on this visceral, gritty side of the story – the contradiction between the development of Hawking’s incredible mind and the decay of his body, this could have been a truly excellent film.
Yet these moments of potential are vastly overwhelmed by reverential and emotional clichés, as Yates succumbs to the responsibility of handling such an overwhelmingly respectable subject. The beginning, charting the first stages of Jane and Stephen’s romance at Cambridge is almost unbearably saturated with stereotypical English jaunts; from his friends racing round quaint streets on their bikes, to playing croquet, and attending the famous May Ball. Later on, the real emotional strength of the development of their marriage is glossed over with swelling violin scores, and nostalgic montages of idyllic wedding photos and family snapshots.
The last section of the film, which insightfully handles a portrait of a remarkable and strenuous marriage, is by far the most interesting. Their acceptance of their diverging needs is commendable. Felicity Jones’ portrayal of Hawking’s childlike yet enduringly strong wife is undoubtedly superb, and crucially stresses her side of the story, yet overall is overshadowed by the film’s hero-worship of the man himself.