Let’s get this out the way; Eddie Redmayne is phenomenal in this film. He gives a performance of great nuance as he slowly slips from showing the first signs of Stephen Hawking’s well-known disability into something more recognisable as the physicist that we know today. It is all in the detail; from the eyes to the way he holds his mouth he creates a sensitive portrait of the iconic professor. It is a truly impressive, and quite likely an Oscar winning performance.
Having said that, I would be surprised if the film won the prize for best film, as while relatively well made, and at times very well directed, it is a film that sometimes suffers under the weight of its own subject matter. It takes as its source material the second (and kinder) memoir of Hawking’s wife Jane Wilde (played here by Felicity Jones), and unfortunately, reaches beyond its capacity in doing so.
The film attempts to span almost the entirety of Hawking’s adult life, from when he began as a post-graduate student at Cambridge in 1963 to the mid-2000s. In doing so, it fails to commit to any particular period of the physicist’s life, and as an audience we feel many details are missing. Why, for example, do Hawking and Jane drift apart? We are told almost nothing of his scientific advances either, which is a shame, as this is probably the most interesting thing about the sometimes troubled cosmologist.
Ultimately, this is a personal narrative that fails to build enough of a connection with the characters over a sustained period of time for it to be an effective one; too many parts of their lives are simply left unexplained. It is a pity, because the parts of the film that are good, such as the interaction between Stephen and Jane when he loses his voice and is reduced to speaking through eye movements, can be very powerful and, indeed, moving.
The problem is that it necessarily all feels formulaic. It is impossible to squeeze all the life events of a man who has had so many enormous ups and tremendous downs into a coherent film. It becomes the inevitable formula of personal advance followed by physical setback, followed by time jump ad infinitum. The supporting cast does a perfectly adequate job of carrying the piece, but Redmayne is the right man in the right role, and inevitably steals the show, though David Thewlis is also worth a mention as Stephen’s mentor Dennis Sciama, along with Felicity Jones as the long-suffering Jane.
The direction of the film is largely impossible to criticise. An overuse, in my opinion, of some quite unsubtle religious imagery, is perhaps inevitable given the conflicting beliefs of the two protagonists and the divisions it caused between them, but fortunately doesn’t distract too much from the general flow. The cinematography is also excellent, showing Cambridge in all of its academic glory. However, the home-video style montages that serve as time jumps interspersed throughout the film is somewhat egregious and, probably, too simplistic a device for such a complex subject.
The film is, nonetheless, generally a good one, and certainly an enjoyable one. The performances certainly carry what is on occasion a slow script, and it is worth the entrance money just to watch Redmayne become Hawking. It is truly one of the best performances in recent memory, and I would be not at all surprised if he went home with an Oscar this year, even if the film as a whole did not quite live up to my expectations.