In the middle of 2014, an American mathematician devised a (tongue-in-cheek) system of the ‘highlight’ data of Kindle users to see how far through readers got with a book before they gave up reading. His intention was to counteract the journalistic hype about must-read summer books and prove that regardless of hype some things are much more widely discussed than they are actually consumed. So what did he call this irreverent classification system?? It was named The Hawking Index: a reference to Stephen Hawkings, The Brief History Of Time – being widely recognized as “the most unread book of all time”.
Yet regardless of what you might think about his popular introduction to the physics and mathematics of spacetime, I defy anyone to not want to finish James Marsh’s new biopic about the fascinating and somewhat tragic life of the legendary rock-star scientist Stephen Hawkings.
For all Hawkings’ fame and insanely impressive scientific achievements over the past decades, The Theory of Everything is mostly a simple story about a husband and wife who have to deal with a potentially insurmountable obstacle in their relationship…
In 1963, Stephen Hawkings (Eddie Redmayne) is at Cambridge University attempting to decide what he should concentrate on for his PHD thesis, alongside Jane (Felicity Jones), who is studying medieval Iberian poetry. They awkwardly meet at a party where they quickly discover that he is a cosmologist (religion for intelligent atheists), whereas she is devoutly Church of England. Despite their intellectual and social differences they begin to fall in love, yet after Stephen takes a spectacular fall in the outdoor quad their burgeoning relation is put to the ultimate test: Before he can complete his studies he is diagnosed with a deadly Motor Neuron Disease and given just two years to live.
Anyone that has any interaction at all with popular culture will know that Hawkings is still very much alive, so the narrative then follows his intellectual ascent to find a unifying theory to unite quantum theory with general relativity and writing his famous book, alongside his physical descent into paralysis and having to rely on his now famous robotic replacement voice.
For a story with such a tragic central theme, TTOE is surprisingly tender and funny at times. Hawkings has always been celebrated for his self-deprecating humour, and Redmayne has delivers an incredible performance, managing to capture his charm and sense of mischief at the same time as portraying his physical disability with uncanny realism. Having to hold difficult physical positions for take after take must have been exhausting (although obviously not as exhausting as having the actual, terrible disease) and is astonishing to see on screen – especially when the film gives you momentary flashbacks and you can see the (d)evolution in adjacent frames.
Not only is Hawking’s disease present in the physical performance, but also in the camerawork. At the beginning of the film there are lots of soft-focus, crafted shots of movement – such as strong agile knees of rowers, or pinball machine flippers, or couples dancing at a ball – to heighten the irony of what is about to happen to the body of the central character. Later on there is a hugely affective scene where Stephen, Jane and some friends are having a celebratory meal to toast his doctorate and as they all settle in to eat the camera lingers over Stephen’s struggle to hold his cutlery to his mouth compared with the other young healthy diners all elegantly cutting their meat and sipping their champagne. The audience is elegantly forced to empathise with how hard and frustrating it is becoming for him to undertake the simplest of actions.
The film has been criticised by some for focusing too much on the relationship and not enough on the science, yet I disagree as the early parts of the film are a clear love-letter to scientific discovery. The camera constantly pans softly across science equipment and atomic-structure models, not to mention the almost pornographic celebration of chalk on chalk boards writing mathematic equations. (One day I hope someone with more time on their hands than I do makes a YouTube edit of all of the shots of mathematicians and scientists writing on chalkboards from Hollywood films – it always looks so beautiful on camera precisely because 99.9999% of the audience do not understand it…)
As I alluded before however, it is not just a story about Hawkings the scientist, but also Stephen and Jane the young couple in love. And, without ruining some of the more tender scenes, I feel that it bravely deals with the obvious question of how a young couple deals with a massive physical obstacle in their relationship. The film eloquently portrays lust as well as love, and makes the story all the more realistic and complex because of it…
So regardless of whether you have any interest of the specific details of how quantum mechanics might ever coincide with Einsteinian models of cosmic relativity (spoiler alert: I do, massively), The Theory Of Everything is enough of a beautiful story of a brilliant mind facing an enormous challenge to satisfy even the most ardent scientific skeptic.