A Stephen Hawking Love Story That Is Generating Some Oscar Buzz

Director: JAMES MARSH/2014

This year, there is a lot of Oscar talk surrounding Eddie Redmayne.  If you aren’t familiar with his name, then you might have seen him in 2012’s Les Miserables.  He had an important part in that film, but was simply just buried under a cast list that included the likes of Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Amanda Seyfried, and so on and so on.  Well, Eddie is no longer going to be buried under the weight of an all-star cast.  Now, he is going to be buried by the gargantuan personality he is portraying in the new film, The Theory of Everything.  That personality is none other than the world-renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking. The early Oscar buzz that surrounds this portrayal is not undeserved either.

The Theory of Everything is based on the book “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen” which was written by Jane Hawking (played here by Felicity Jones), Stephen’s ex-wife.  It explorers the journey their relationship takes as it navigates their meeting in college up until their breakup.  Throughout that journey, and packed in-between the ebb and flow of their life is all of the events that shaped Stephen Hawking.

Eddie Redmayne shows a lot of range throughout this film beginning the journey at Oxford, where he was on the rowing team, and seen to be quite social, despite being brilliant.  Here we see someone that is relateable and not just simply one of the greatest scientific minds in history.  This Stephen Hawking is a typical young person, goofing off, trying to impress a particular woman, Jane, in between the bits where he is busy pursuing advanced degrees at Cambridge and challenging the accepted scientific theories at the time.  His “The Theory of Everything” thesis was him trying to distill all the explanations of our universe into a single, cohesive explanation.  Obviously a gargantuan goal, but through this film, we see a version of this great mind who likes to “go big or go home”.  This even applies to his courtship of Jane.

Jane (Jones) is seen as an equally as strong figure, handling the obnoxious boy pursuing her with ease while maintaining a grace befitting the gender roles of the time that ingratiates herself with all who come in contact with her.   When Stephen begins exhibiting a profound clumsiness that eventually escalates into slurred speech and the loss of mobility, she never shrinks back.  When he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease, commonly referred to as ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), and given 2 years to live, Jane does not stand down for a minute, despite Stephen’s desire to fade away, cutting off contact with her.  She becomes the pursuer, and promises to be with him through it all.

Based on this, one could then argue that without Jane’s resolve to love him in spite of the difficult task of having to basically fill the role of caretaker as well as wife, we might not have had the pleasure of experiencing the mind of Stephen Hawking, scientist.  With only a 2 year life-expectancy, Stephen was driven to accomplish all that he could.  With Jane in his corner, that 2 years has stretched out more than 50 years and he is still with us today.

Eddie Redmayne’s true performance isn’t necessarily creating an approachable figure that transcends lengthy discussions of black holes, string theory, and the like.  It’s in his transformation into the man who, despite being bound to a chair and who loses his ability to talk, never loses his voice. More modern audiences will only be familiar with Hawking as the man who shows up on popular television shows like The Big Bang TheoryThe Simpsons, or Futurama, or who voices moments in Pink Floyd’s songs.  The Theory of Everything, humanizes the iconic man behind the talk-box and motorized wheel chair to show the true struggle for someone trying to continue his life and work in the face of limited technology and a debilitating disease.

The film, while featuring strong performances, tends to over-glorify Jane Hawking as noble saint turned victim.  This is based on her accounts of their life together, so some of this perspective is expected, and what makes it work on the whole.  After spending much of the film building up how good of a marriage the Hawkings had, it abruptly shifts when Stephen announces he is leaving her to be with his nurse.  While creating a great tension in the film to propel it towards the conclusion, it seems to cut too hard against the grain of the personality of Stephen that was established throughout the first 2/3rds of the story.  That it happened is not a problem, but more care should have been taken in transitioning this episode from Stephen’s perspective.  When the end comes, and the epilogue appears in writing as the camera pulls back on Stephen and Jane appearing together before the Queen, we are not given any sense of hope, despite being told they remain close to this day.  It instead feels more like a kick to the gut that the relationship we were made to cheer for was really in vain.

Another angle that I wish was developed more than it was how their relationship functioned despite Stephen being an avowed atheist when Jane was a devout Christian.  Her care for him and her strength was clearly rooted here, and we get glimpses that Stephen was aware of that, but this interesting tension is thrown away in casual lines meant to illicit laughs, and in some cases they are quite funny.  But seeing more of this type of interaction may have better explained one of the reasons for their relationship pulling apart. I believe it also might have made him more focused in his science as he clearly did not want to have to concede to Jane that God might be behind the universe if he failed to find a mathematical or scientific reason that didn’t include the need for a creator.  Given the state of science vs. religion tension, this issue might have mass appeal for both camps.

The Theory of Everything is compelling on the whole, and a brilliant portrayal of a modern day icon.  Eddie Redmayne should be given an Oscar nomination for his brilliant ability to become Stephen Hawking, and make him accessible to the modern world on a level not requiring advanced degrees.  Professionally, he is brilliant, but he is not perfect.  He has admitted multiple times that he has been wrong.  Why wouldn’t he be equally as fallible in his personal life? Maybe that is the point.  His relationship with Jane is a way that this version of Hawking can relate to all of us.  If the one of the greatest minds of our time can’t get relationships right, then maybe we shouldn’t feel so bad when ours struggle as well.  For some this might undercut the hope and tone of the entire thrust of the film of finding true love, and having someone there when we are given the worst news of our life, and they stick by our side.  Maybe, in Stephen’s case, his relationships succumb to the black holes he so passionately pursued in his professional life, only to admit later, “they don’t exist”.  And while these failures, and living with ALS, doesn’t stop Stephen Hawking from continuing to pursue something greater, then maybe nothing should hinder us as well.