Nothing at once so overshadows and illuminates the world as its great geniuses, the mantle of which Stephen Hawking filled out with near Einsteinian certainty in the early 1960s, later becoming an ineffable figure of intellect and human endeavour for all the world in 1988 with the publication and enormous success of his A Brief History of Time. Principle Skinner succinctly described him as ‘the world’s smartest man’; it must be so.
Of course if Einstein’s transgression of the scientific domain into the popular was partially down to his appearance, bushy haired, most iconically with tongue removed briefly from cheek to stick out at the world, this is even more the case for Hawking. In the pantheon of global icons, never mind purely as a human being, Hawking is a unique physical specimen. So how does one imitate the inimitable?
The answer, it appears, is to cast Eddie Redmayne, who’s purpose in life must now be to attempt to better his career-defining turn here. Startlingly good value for his Golden Globe award for Best Actor, and fully deserving of his place on the BAFTA list of nominees in the same category, Redmayne’s great triumph is not only to offer such complete portraits of the younger, vertical Hawking, as well as the wheelchair bound, physically degenerated, globally famous icon he would later become, but every stage in between, a painful and painstakingly charted account of the effects of motor neurone disease.
The film and its plot, it must be remembered, are not drawn from Hawking’s own memoir My Brief History, but rather that of his first wife, Jane Wilde Hawking, recounting her first meeting Stephen and the improbable 25 years of marriage which followed. As such the film, though inevitably framed by Hawking’s achievements in science, relegates the intricacies of the scientist’s genius to a second fiddle role behind the romantic-drama that plays out. Felicity Jones has a fine turn also as Jane, so much overshadowed and illuminated by her husband, giving us a subtle and nuanced performance, portraying the spectrum of personalities which Wilde inhabited during her marriage, from doting carer, frustrated academic, beleaguered mother to tempted wife. The film’s sympathies are maturely spread amongst those whose lives revolve around the cosmologist, and what might have become a two hour genuflexion at the bravery of one man is correctly tempered across a small range of characters.
Shot in the resplendency of Cambridge’s quadrangle laden campus, the visual attention to detail is impeccable throughout. As the film progresses, the totality of Redmayne’s transformation into the younger Hawking is a visually stunning phenomenon of character acting, each physical movement a victory of performance. Director James Marsh’s colour palette at times consumes the picture in a melancholic blue/grey tinge, almost approaching the illusion of black and white filmed in technicolour, at others rich greens and deep reds, complimenting the emotionally visceral and malleable two and a half decades which the film covers.
Sentimental though the film too may be, the framing of its tragic events at times deployed a little predictably, the finished result is a more than worthwhile and lasting depiction of one of the great human tales of the 20th century. A story that would certainly be written off were it fiction – too improbable, too sentimental, but all the more wonderful for it.