Movie review: Stephen Hawking biopic is gripping

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones impress in their portrayals of the ups and downs in the relationship between Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde. -- PHOTO: UNIVERSAL PICTURES
Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones impress in their portrayals of the ups and downs in the relationship between Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde. -- PHOTO: UNIVERSAL PICTURES

Review Drama


124 minutes/Opens tomorrow/****1/4

The story: This biopic of famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) spans from his days as a brilliant student at Cambridge University to the onset of a debilitating motor-neuron disease and his international success as a scientist. Adapted from the memoir Travelling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen (2013), by his ex-wife Jane Wilde, played in the film by Felicity Jones.

Even for those whose knowledge of science remains a yawning black hole, the work A Brief History Of Time (1988) by Stephen Hawking might well elicit a flicker or two of recognition.

It is a publishing phenomenon that has sold more than 10 million copies and helped to explain concepts such as the big bang and black holes to the man in the street.

The picture of Hawking on its cover is probably the mental image most have of him: a man whose body is crippled, but whose mind is brilliantly uncaged as it probes the mysteries of the universe.

What this film shows us, with great warmth and honesty, is not just the wheelchair, but the man in it.

The film begins in 1963 in Cambridge and Hawking is a physics geek with an endearing smile. He is attending mixers, hanging out in pubs and coxing and all these everyday activities seem poignant, given the disease that is lurking and waiting to trip him up.

What might merely be klutziness in another seems like a sinister sign of his body's impending betrayal.

It is also clear that he is very intelligent as he speaks rapturously about a single unified equation that would explain everything in the universe.

Thanks to the considerable charms of Redmayne (Les Miserables, 2012), equations on a board have not looked this compelling since the John Nash drama, A Beautiful Mind (2001).

At heart, the film is also a moving romance between Hawking and Wilde.

As smart as Hawking is, theirs is very much a relationship between equals; Wilde's strength of character is remarkable when she eventually learns what she has to deal with.

That relationship is brought to vivid life, thanks to the sensitive characterisation and the wonderful, breakout performances of Redmayne and Jones (Like Crazy, 2011).

Not everything is conveyed with words. When Hawking's condition deteriorates to the point he needs to sit in a wheelchair, she does not say anything but merely brings it out one breakfast.

Hawking is no saintly figure here. He experiences doubts and frustrations, displays his humorous side and, yes, has sexual desires as well - he subscribes to Penthouse magazine and his nonplussed caregiver (Maxine Peake) has to turn the pages for him.

Despite Wilde's best attempts to keep their family together, the cost of doing so takes its toll on her. At one point, she ropes in her choir teacher Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox) to help out. He becomes a family friend, an additional pair of hands and another man about the house.

Things become complicated but unfold with a remarkable lack of melodrama. And being in a wheelchair does not mean that one is immune to falling in, or out, of love.

James Marsh - who won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for the fascinating Man On Wire (2008) about Philippe Petit's illegal high- wire walk between New York's Twin Towers in 1974 - has taken an extraordinary story and turned it into a gripping and relatable drama. And this is possibly the best use ever of the well-worn device of time rewinding at the end of a movie.

Remarkably, Hawking, now 72, has long outlived the dire prognosis of his disease and continues to do research.

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