A short history of Hawking
Stephen Hawking would not be as famous as he is today if he was not so ill. As impressive as his accomplishments would have been from an able-bodied person, they are all the more astounding from someone with motor neurone disease (MND). There is something almost mythical about the image of such a far-reaching mind trapped in an immobile body. It would be absurd, though, to suggest that Hawking’s disability was the most significant thing about him, or that the most significant thing about his disability was how irritable it made his ex-wife, Jane. But those are the suggestions at the heart of James Marsh’s soapy new biopic, “The Theory Of Everything”. Never mind black holes or the Big Bang: in this telling of the Hawking story, what really matters is that when he scooted around the sitting room in his wheelchair, he distracted Jane from her essay on Medieval Iberian poetry, reports The Economist.
In the film’s first half, Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is more balanced. “The Theory Of Everything” starts as a warm, charming romantic comedy about a brilliant, bow-tied physics student (Eddie Redmayne), who woos a fresh-faced religious girl (Felicity Jones) in Cambridge in the 1960s. Things turn serious when he is diagnosed with MND. He is told that he has a life expectancy of two years, but, defying the gloomy predictions of doctors and family members, Jane and Stephen marry and have children. It’s a moving tale of love conquering all—at least for a while—and the film-makers manage to interweave it with the development of Hawking’s ground-breaking PhD.
But as his health deteriorates, so does the couple’s relationship—and so does “The Theory Of Everything”. In its second half, the film shunts Hawking’s research into the background, and concentrates on Jane’s mounting unhappiness. Instead of trying to communicate what was so breathtaking about Hawking’s cosmological studies, what the film-makers offer is a flat domestic melodrama about a woman’s struggles to care for a disabled man, and about her sustaining friendship with a drippy choirmaster (Charlie Cox).
Jones acts the part beautifully, letting Jane’s anguish peep through the façade of her sunny English fortitude, but it’s still overly polite, insipid stuff: Jane Hawking’s autobiographies paint a far, far darker picture of her marriage. A bigger disappointment, however, is that for a good half-hour, the film forgets that Jane’s husband is a scientist at all. He could be any disabled man, and she could be any carer, which surely defeats the point of a biopic of the Hawkings. The writing of “A Brief History Of Time” is consigned to one shot of Hawking revising the title—and in reality that was the publisher’s idea, not his.
Still, even at its most blandly sentimental, the film is saved by its extraordinary performances. Redmayne charts the progress of Hawking’s physical degeneration with infinite subtlety, and it’s heart-wrenching to watch as his body deflates, his voice thickens, and his feet scuff ever more sloppily along the pavement. What’s just as striking is Redmayne’s vibrancy in the film’s later stretches. Hawking may be almost entirely motionless in these scenes, but he remains just as present as a character, thanks to Redmayne’s glinting eyes and roguish smile.
The chances are that when the Best-Actor nominations are read out at the BAFTAs in February, Redmayne will be up against Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”. Both films do a scientific genius a disservice by glossing over the details of the work, but that’s not the only co-incidence. In 2004 Cumberbatch played Hawking himself in an excellent television mini-series, “Hawking”. It had more substance and more science in it than “The Theory Of Everything” and “The Imitation Game” put together.