The Theory of Everything effectively portrays real-life events and progression of ALS

graphic: Aileen Wu

graphic: Aileen Wu

The Theory of Everything, a biopic about Stephen Hawking released in November 2014, is a beautiful portrayal of the life of a remarkable man, who, despite being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, published groundbreaking studies in the world of physics. It is both a love story and a personal tale of a young man of brilliant intellectual condition trapped in a rapidly-deteriorating body.

Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, when he was a 21-year-old PhD student at the University of Cambridge, Hawking continued his academic career despite his physical handicap. With his determination and the support of his friends, Hawking became a world-renowned astrophysicist, making valuable steps in the areas of general relativity and cosmology as well as writing several bestselling books. The film is based on Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, a memoir by Hawking’s first wife, Jane, who is portrayed by Felicity Jones in the biopic. As a result, the film focuses on both Hawking and Jane, who remained with him many years after his diagnosis.

Both Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking and Felicity Jones’ performance as Jane Wilde Hawking felt real and exhibited raw emotion. Their love story is shown through varied filming styles, including home-video Polaroid shots, powerful close-ups, and idyllic panoramas of the University of Cambridge. The narrative is romantic and dramatic, balancing Hawking’s personal and professional struggles.

Redmayne’s performance as Hawking in the film felt incredibly authentic. He worked to adopt the physical appearance of an ALS patient, losing fifteen pounds and training with choreographer Alexandra Reynolds for four months. The actor supplemented his preparation by extensively researching the various progressive, degenerative stages of ALS. As a result, his efforts to reproduce the escalation of the disease were vividly and successfully shown on the screen.“[The body contortion] was quite uncomfortable,” he said during a press interview hosted by Focus Features, “but at the end of the day, I could get up, and so many of the ALS patients who let us into their lives can’t.”

In addition, Redmayne managed to capture the personal characteristics of Hawking, including the effervescence of Hawking’s eyes despite the lack of neuromuscular control in his face. He showed both sides of Hawking’s personality: his determination and wit throughout the ordeal as well as the restrictions he felt as a husband, father, and academic.

“It was an incredible privilege to portray this man,” Redmayne said during the press interview. “But I must say I did find the prospect of it quite intimidating. The physical and emotional challenges of it were very daunting. And more than anything, I certainly wanted to please Professor Hawking himself.” The actor had spoken with Hawking before production, who seemed very enthusiastic about the project. In addition, Hawking offered to lend the original computerized voice he uses, which then was used in the film.

Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking has generated large media buzz, placing him as one of the top contenders for winning the Oscar award for Best Actor. While the film focused largely on sentimentality, the approach may have been a bit too obviously romanticized or dramatic for some. Although director James Marshall may have been more focused on Hawking’s emotional journey rather than the magnitude of his academic work, the biopic still included both the factual and interpretational sides of Hawking’s story.

Many atmospheric elements of the film, communicated through hazy lighting, the Gothic architecture of Cambridge University, and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s classical yet sentimental soundtrack, evoked the nostalgia of looking back at a lifetime. Marshall illustrated this theme by playing on Hawking’s topic of research: time. The final scene of the film was a rewinded version of the movie, going backwards through all the moments in the film to the days of Hawking’s life as a healthy graduate student. The combination of the filming, acting, music, and story all gave the film a timeless character and an inspiring effect.


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