Review: The Theory of Everything

Picture of a young man and woman playing croquet on a lawn outside a grand stone buildingThe Theory of Everything is a bio-pic of Professor Stephen Hawking, the British professor of theoretical physics and former Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge university, who is best-known for his book A Brief History of Time and for being one of the world’s most famous severely disabled people. It tells the story of his life from his days as a graduate student in Cambridge, his romance and marriage to Jane Wilde Hawking, a professor of Romance languages on whose book Travelling to Inifinity the film is based, up to just after the publication of Brief History and his divorce from Jane. It stars Eddie Redmayne as Prof Hawking and Felicity Jones, previously best known for roles in The Worst Witch, Like Crazy and the BBC radio soap The Archers, as Jane.

I’d give this film 3 out of 5. That’s because it’s a very well-made costume drama — exactly the sort of thing the British drama industry does so well. There has been some criticism of the dominance of public-school products in the British arts recently and Eddie Redmayne, who went to Eton and then Trinity College in Cambridge, is one (although Jones went to a state girls’ school in Birmingham, though then to Oxford), but he is well cast in this role. He at least looks like Prof Hawking. I don’t think Felicity Jones looks much like Jane Hawking, though — there’s a page here which shows the real faces next to the “reel faces” — and none of the other characters looks much like their real counterpart. They’ve got the race and the sex right, but that’s about it. (I saw clips from a film called The Brooke Ellison Story, about a quadriplegic woman who went to Harvard and became a major advocate for stem-cell research in the USA, and for all the resemblance the actress bore to the real Brooke Ellison, they might as well have cast Whoopi Goldberg.)

The film’s a typical modern British costume drama. It’s set from the 60s to the 80s, mostly in Cambridge, mostly among nice middle-class Brits. Full of slightly scruffy but well-spoken men and very ladylike ladies. You hardly see a woman in a pair of trousers in this whole film. (Jane wears one to a holiday in the country, but it was a very dressy blue pair of trousers, which I suspect she’d not have wanted to get ruined by wearing it up muddy tracks.) If this film were fiction, it would be a very good bit of fiction — it’s a nice little tear-jerker and a film which doesn’t have stereotypical heroes or villains. But it isn’t fiction, or at least isn’t meant to be; it’s based on the life of a real person, yet a number of details throughout the film have been altered and while some of these are minor, there are quite a few big changes, and the story of how Stephen and Jane’s marriage ended is somewhat sanitised in Stephen’s and his new wife Elaine’s favour. The film over-emphasises Elaine’s role, depicting her as being the nurse that was finally able to get Stephen to communicate and to breathe a spark of life back into him, which Jane could not; in fact, she was one of several nurses hired after he lost his ability to speak, and Jane was quite good at communicating with the alphabet frame. I must say, it didn’t make me all that sympathetic to Stephen Hawking; I saw her as exploitative, and wondered how Stephen could ditch Jane, who was still beautiful (as you’d expect as she was played by an actress some fifteen years younger than Jane Hawking was at the time) and had borne his three children (you wouldn’t notice the signs of that on Jones either).

The film compresses too much into too little time. It glosses over too much. It doesn’t have much depth about the onset of Hawking’s impairment, nor about his science. It boils the science down to two or three of his papers, the ones that made the headlines, yet his role as a professor of mathematics and of teaching doctoral students over the years aren’t mentioned. I found the depiction of how he got his diagnosis improbable; it seemed from the film that the investigations that led to his diagnosis of motor neurone disease occurred after he fell and banged his head in a Cambridge courtyard, something which surely would not prompt that kind of investigation (in any case, it is one of the film’s many liberties with the facts). Jane Wilde’s book mentions that Hawking obstinately refused to get a full-time carer in as his condition took hold, even requiring his 9-year-old son to help him in the toilet; this was barely touched on in the film. I did think Jones’s performance reflects Jane’s frustration with her life with Stephen, in particular the demands his condition and his refusal to get help placed on her.

There is a scene towards the end where Prof Hawking is delivering a lecture in the USA, after he has left Jane and embarked on his relationship with Elaine Mason, where he sees a woman drop a pen in the audience, and it shows to him rising to his feet and giving it back to her, and then returning to his wheelchair. Of course, this is a fantasy, and it is not clear whether this is something Hawking said he fantasised about doing or wished he could have done at the time, or whether it is just the invention of the scriptwriters. Disabled film critic Scott Jordan Harris notes that this film “flickers weakly with truisms that can be mistaken for insight only by people who are not disabled, because it was made by—and for—people who are not disabled”, and this particular scene gives Eddie Redmayne the opportunity to jump out of his convincing portrayal of disability just for a moment. Myself, I think the scene should be judged on whether it comes from Hawking’s account or not; if it does, it no doubt reflects something that many physically impaired people (particularly those as severely impaired as he is) have experienced at one time or another. If not, it’s dishonest, unnecessary, highly unoriginal and quite unrepresentative of Hawking’s attitude throughout the rest of the film. I should add that while the film does show Hawking and his friends overcoming obstacles in their way, none of them are presented in such a way that it resembles an injustice. It’s not a campaigning film at all.

Despite being two hours long, the film really does not do the story justice. It could have been better done as a three-part TV series, but then, it would not have had the global reach and been nominated for Oscars. It’s a very well-made costume drama, but reading about all the liberties the team took with the story rather ruined it for me after it ended. It would be a fairly good film if it were fiction — but it’s not.

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