2014 has given us an uncommon wealth of top quality British product: Locke, Starred Up, Downhill, Pride, The Riot Club, '71, The Imitation Game, even the very charming What We Did On Our Holiday. All of them are fine films indeed. The Theory of Everything, however, is exceptional. In telling the true-life story of physicist Stephen Hawking and his first marriage, it might go light on the science but is first rate as a romance.
It begins with healthy Hawking (Redmayne) meeting fellow student Jane (Jones) at Cambridge University. They fall in love but soon Stephen's debilitating illness comes to light. He is diagnosed with motor neurone disease and initially given only two years to live. She determinedly marries him and we follow the ensuing decades from the early '60s as their relationship undergoes the severe strain of his handicap.
That brief description gives the impression that the movie is a bummer. Wrong on every count. It wonderfully juxtaposes the serious, tragic elements with touches of great humour – Hawking in his wheelchair pretending to be a dalek while entertaining his kids is but one of many funny moments throughout. But you must always have hankies at the ready too. When the relationship finally comes to an end it's very hard not to shed a tear. At no point do you ever feel you're being shamelessly manipulated though. The emotions are honestly earned here due to the canny direction of Marsh and the two extraordinary lead performances.
Redmayne is a revelation as Hawking. He never makes a big play for our sympathy or goes for histrionic displays of anguish. His self effacing turn as he succumbs to the disease is done with the most convincing naturalness. Confined to a wheelchair, paralysed and unable to speak, his performance is a subtle contrast of sly contradictions, adroitly giving us the horror of his plight mixed with good natured humour coupled with sharp jabs of emotion and pain. Considering he is unable to move at all for most of the narrative, he nevertheless gives a fully rounded and quite sublime interpretation of the character. It's a marvellous turn.
Jones is equally impressive. As his long suffering wife she gives a cleverly shaded portrayal of a woman unable to cope at times with the demands placed on her. By turns loving, resilient, vulnerable and unsympathetic, she masters the various sides to this difficult role with aplomb, always believable and commanding. This young actress has shone before in such efforts as The Invisible Woman, Like Crazy, The Tempest and Albatross among others, but nothing has prepared one for what she does here. She's terrific in encapsulating the many facets of this strong-minded woman over the years.
There's a lovely performance too from Cox as the church choir director Jane falls for. His likeable portrayal as he becomes involved with the Hawking family hits just the right note of awkward upper class British reserve. There's fine support too from Thewlis as Hawking's university mentor and McBurney as his father, both actors admirably economical in delivering their advice and wisdom. And as the no-nonsense nurse who has a seismic impact on the Hawkings' relationship, Peake is very effective. She comes in to the story late but attractively delineates the medic's feelings with finesse and precision.
Director Marsh makes good use of the wide screen and adopts a distinctive visual approach, glossing over the science aspects with occasional images that are enervating and unique in illustrating the physicist's decay and mental plight. There's a lovely shot of Jane crying on a bridge after a family gathering – it's exquisitely lit and most beautiful to behold. And that in fact is what this glorious drama most definitely is overall – utterly exquisite and beguilingly beautiful. I adored it.