I was a little skeptical about a romance film based on the love life of Stephen Hawking. Not to be insensitive, but he’s just not exactly the guy I picture when I think of a heartthrob. Ryan Gosling maybe, or that Greek god Hemsworth who’s been seducing me from the cover of People in every checkout line magazine rack. But I digress. Everyone is entitled to a great love story, I suppose, so why not Stephen Hawking?
Besides which, I was intrigued by the Hawking’s reputation for genius and the trailer’s apparent blend of puppy love and tragedy. I decided I needed to know more. And that’s when things got really interesting. A little research revealed that Stephen Hawking had three children and two great love stories, the second involving an affair with his nurse-turned-wife. Which occurred after he lost his ability to move and speak. I knew the man was a genius but, wait – what? I, like so many others, headed to the theatres in search of answers.
Stephen and Jane (Wilde, Stephen’s first wife and author of the autobiography on which the film is based) meet at a nerdy grad student party: “Hello,” she says. “Science,” he says, by way of introduction. “Arts,” she says. And the rest of their courtship follows suit. He walks around spouting scientific theories I don’t understand and she spontaneously quotes books I’ve never read and both seem to have a hard time keeping their teeth in their puffy-lipped mouths. It’s damn near the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. They’re so quirky, and so in love. There are early signs of his impending disease: Hawking has a general physical awkwardness that Jane might at the time have found coy and endearing, but we know better. As they talk about the winding back of time by the riverside and spin around and around, we want to warn Jane, but she’ll find out soon enough anyway.
Eddie Redmayne, whose acting genius rivals Hawking’s scientific genius, dashes across a courtyard on his way to tell a professor of his latest theory. The violins escalate, and he falls. Hard. He’s taken to the hospital, tested, and diagnosed. It’s a motor-neuron disease. He has two years. His body will deteriorate, and then stop working entirely. But his mind? Stephen asks, what about his mind? His mind will be fine. His thoughts will remain as rich as ever, but no one will know what they are. It would have been a more dramatic scene if we didn’t already know that Stephen Hawking is currently 72 years old.
Now I’m not going to pretend to be an expert or anything, but based on my understanding of time (which comes exclusively from watching this movie), things went into warp speed right around this scene. Out of nowhere, there’s a wedding montage. And then a kid! And Stephen goes from holding that kid he just made in one scene, to having a really hard time slithering down the staircase in the next. Then he’s getting his PhD and can hardly talk and write his name. For a film based on the life of the man responsible for what we know about time, this film had no concept of it. Perhaps Director James Marsh’s assumption about the viewers’ foreknowledge caused him to skip over things, important details that a work of fiction would have relished in. For example, we know Stephen Hawking is currently alive, but did he pass the two-year death sentence? Three kids later, we are left to guess that the answer is yes.
But besides the poor handling of time, the science in the movie was well done. I had a little trepidation going into it that everything would be over my head, but the scientific theories are explained in ways that even I can understand – namely using food. Cream is swirled around a coffee cup to illustrate black holes, beer foam is swirled around on a bar table, Jane holds up a fork with a green pea and a fork with a potato to depict quantum physics and relativity – it’s “The Theory of Everything” for dummies, or people who like food; I, for one, was grateful.
Despite Stephen’s rapid deterioration (acted to perfection, by the way. I don’t suppose it’s possible to contract ALS by pretending to have ALS, but Eddie Redmayne was so convincing that I’d insist on his getting tested anyway), his wit remains intact. At one point, his friend carries him up a staircase and asks him if he can still – you know – (a question we’ve all been asking ourselves, answered only by what seems like consistent childbirths) and Stephen replies that the system that controls the brain isn’t the same system that controls – you know, which says a lot about men. Stephen Hawking is genuinely a funny guy, though he gets harder and harder to understand, with every one-liner being followed by about 7 seconds of audible audience translation. The film truly becomes hard to watch.
And then the character Jonathan is introduced, and I lose all sympathy with the film and become exasperated instead. Jonathan is the local choir director who is brought in to teach Robert (the only named child, from what I could gather) piano lessons, and who then becomes a resident manny (male nanny). And there are all sorts of montages with Jonathan, Jane, and the kids running on the beach with Stephen sitting in his wheelchair. Jonathan cradling Stephen’s head feeding him. Jonathan and Jane playing tag and hiding in a bush together. And then Jane gets pregnant for a third time and vehemently denies that it’s Jonathan’s – which brings up all sorts of morality issues about having a child with the now completely mute and immobile Stephen. It was all as uncomfortable as it sounds and never gets any less uncomfortable.
In fact, it only gets more squirm-worthy with the arrival of Elaine, the nurse hired to take care of Stephen because Jane is at wit’s end and probably having an affair by this point anyway (though we have no actual proof). The marriage has deteriorated at the rate of Stephen’s body, and then Elaine, the patient and kind redhead nurse, enters the picture and starts showing Stephen pictures of Penthouse girls. Yeah. So I guess it comes as no real surprise when Stephen dumps Jane for Elaine. They end up getting married in real life, though that’s not even hinted at in the film. Neither is the marriage between Jane and Jonathan, though that later happens, too. Not wanting to take away from the main love story, Marsh avoided fleshing out the budding love stories, making them seem stilted and abrupt. The film ends with Stephen and Jane watching their children play (man, those kids look old. What year is it anyway?). In a nostalgic ending line, Stephen says, “Look what we’ve made.” And I wish I were left thinking anything other than 1) I don’t even know the kids’ names, and 2) I’m not so sure you were responsible for making that little one, buddy.
I wanted to love this movie. I anxiously awaited its arrival for weeks. The acting was brilliant, the writing was brilliant – but it just didn’t work. All of the parts of the equation were there, but it didn’t amount to a consistently enthralling and believable film. The pre-marriage days were beautiful and simple (as they often are), but the rest of the film was rushed and left too many holes and questions. It’s hard to encapsulate the entire build, arc, and decline of a romance, while also anticipating the next romance, and that’s where I think this film fails as a love story. But perhaps that’s life, or Stephen Hawking’s life at least, and the film only mirrored the disappointment and messiness of his actual marriage, divorce, and remarriage.
I hope Stephen Hawking figures out how to reverse time so that I can get those 2 hours of my life back.