Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 3 min.
Our Content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (0-5): 4.5
Do not human beings have a hard service on earth,
and are not their days like the days of a laborer?
Like a slave who longs for the shadow,
and like laborers who look for their wages,
so I am allotted months of emptiness,
and nights of misery are apportioned to me.
When I lie down I say, ‘When shall I rise?’
But the night is long,
and I am full of tossing until dawn.
It (love) bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
I Corinthians 13:7
The title of director James Marsh’s biography of the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking is taken from the scientist’s quest to discover the one equation that will account for the existence of the universe. Quite an ambitious undertaking, especially considering the immense handicaps under which the machine-tethered Hawking has been laboring for so many years. Adapted by Anthony McCarten from Jane Hawking’s second memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, the film expertly tells the story of the life of cosmologist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) from 1963 when he courted fellow graduate student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) at Cambridge, through the years in which he was diagnosed as a victim of Motor Neurone Disease while at the same time he is developing his brilliant theories about time and space and black holes.
Stephen is a non-believer, but Jane is a devout Anglican who endures incredible hardships herself in giving him the support that prolongs his life far beyond the two-years of the doctor’s diagnosis, thus allowing his brilliant mind to work. On the home front they are able to sire three children, and sadly the birth of their third child itself adds to her hardship. At a crucial point when she desperately needed help in caring for the children and her severely disabled husband, Jane had followed her mother’s advice (Emily Watson in a too under-written role) and joined the choir at her church. The choirmaster, Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), a widower, had become a close family friend, helping Jane care for Stephen, as well as serving as an active father figure for the first two children. At the christening party for their third child Stephen’s mother Mary gives voice to the gossip that apparently has been generated by Jones’ spending so much time with the Hawkings—who is the father of this child?
Jane, stunned and hurt by the charge after sacrificing so much for her husband—she had set aside her own PhD work in Romantic Languages and Literature —vigorously denies the nasty implication. Although there had been signs of mutual attraction and temptation, Jonathan immediately drops out of the picture. Much later he and Jane will reunite, but this is only after Jane and Stephen had been married for 25 years—and it is Stephen, not Jane, who walks out on their marriage after his new nurse Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) takes more than a professional interest in her patient. This portion of the film is so truncated that it took me a moment to realize what was happening, but then the film really is about the relationship between Stephen and Jane and not the breakup and subsequent marriages of each of them.
Eddie Redmayne deservedly has received plaudits from the critics, predicting that the relatively unknown actor will be nominated for an Oscar. He adroitly shows how the dread disease slowly robbed Stephen of his mobility, while leaving his brilliant mind intact. From the moment when he knocks over a cup of tea to his struggle in walking normally and then his fall in the courtyard that sends him to the doctor, the ailment progresses. By the time he reluctantly accepts a wheel chair his feet and toes have twisted inward, his hands are shaking so much that he must accept the humiliation of being spoon fed, and then by the time he has written his best selling A Brief History of Time, he cannot use his vocal chords. He is dependent upon a portable computer device even to communicate. Hawking’s body is so immobilized that he must rely on the twitch of an eyebrow or cheek to navigate the speech program’s cursor through the letters of the alphabet to slowly compose his words and then place them in sentences.
The film shows the love and determination of those around Stephen, without whose aid his brilliant thoughts would have been locked inside his mind. Jane, of course is first of these, showing when she responded to Stephen’s father’s warnings of the difficulties inherrent in her marrying his son, that she meant it when she said “But I love him.” Along the way we see her weariness at one point as well as the sometimes rudeness of her spouse, but it is only when another woman steals Stephen’s heart, that she gives up the relationship—though I have read that they now are friends.
Stephen’s professor Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis), becoming aware of his student’s early brilliance, remains a staunch friend and champion throughout Stephen’s career. And, of course Jonathan brought much relief and joy to Stephen, Jane, and their first two children until the gossip that misread his relationship with Jane forced him to leave.
The film deserves to join the other fine disability dramas like My Left Foot and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, films that show how powerful and noble the human spirit can be when faced with seemingly impossible circumstances. The film does not go into the obscure details of Hawking’s theories that would reconcile quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of general relativity, except for three brief scenes, at a meal with a fork and a potato, one set in a pub, and another showing a swirl of cream in a cup of coffee. It is not the science but the human drama of Stephen and Jane that are the center of the film, making for a memorable viewing experience.
As a believer I appreciated the film’s showing a little of both sides of the atheist/believer debate. Jane is able to hold her own with her brilliant husband, the two at their very first meeting spending the evening talking about ideas and poetry rather than engaging in the usual clumsy verbal sparring found in most romantic movies. In one witty conversation Jane says, “So, I take it you’ve never been to church?” Hawking replies, “Once upon a time.” “ Tempted to convert?” “I have a slight problem with the celestial dictatorship premise.” Despite their being on opposite sides, the two fall in love and married, staying with each other for 25 years. That speaks well for human love and endurance. The apostle Paul advised believers against marrying unbelievers, but I think because of the enormous good that Jane, sustained by her faith, did might have made an exception in her case.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Dec. 2014 issue of Visual Parables.