dir: James Marsh
I personally think it was brave of the people involved to dare attempt this. Making a biopic about Professor Stephen Hawking is a very daunting proposition.
For most of his adult life he’s been ravaged physically by a degenerative motor neuron disease. His achievements advancing our various understandings of the nature of the universe are staggering. He’s certainly one of the most brilliant minds to ever appear on this planet, in human history at least. There was this amazing hedgehog once…
As I kept that frame in mind, that this was about the Professor, it meant that I found the flick itself quite disappointing. It wasn’t until I realised what must have been quite obvious to other viewers, as it was obvious to my partner, who enjoyed the film far more than I did: it’s not about the Prof. It’s about his wife Jane.
Viewed from that perspective, that it’s a biopic about Stephen Hawking’s wife instead, it starts to make far more sense. It doesn’t make it that much more enjoyable for me, or a better flick, in my opinion, but its shortcomings transform from bugs to features instead.
And yet when you find out that the words “based on the autobiography by Jane Hawking” don’t actually mean that the screenplay matches the events in the memoir, you wonder whether you should just accept that it’s a touching drama about a woman whose husband might have been famous for something and has special health care needs.
I don’t have a problem with biopics manipulating facts to suit narratives and to make them more dramatically compelling. I mean, I do have a problem with it but I totally accept it when I’m enjoying the flick. Biopics, after all, are not documentaries. They have actors, and actoring all over the place, and, let’s be honest, the real reason they exist is to guarantee certain actors Oscar nominations or actual Oscars themselves.
So much of the problem for me throughout this flick was that the many scenes between Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his eventual wife (Felicity Jones) didn’t feel like they actually happened. It’s not that I doubted they transpired like that, because how the heck would I know anyway. It was more than they felt quite artificial in a lot of instances.
That’s not the fault of the performances. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones do excellent work as actors. Sure, people might know of Hawking, or at least know what he looks like, but practically no-one knows anything about Jane, so you’d think she has the easier job. Also, Redmayne is the one who has to act without speaking fairly soon into the story, and starts having to contort his body into a painful pretzel and still convey strong emotion through the distortions of his facial muscles.
It’s painful to watch. We’re spared many of the elements of what happens when someone has this condition, but we can see the effect it has on him, and on his wife, quite profoundly.
The film lets us know that pretty much everyone around Stephen acknowledges that he’s brilliant as anything, but, once the diagnosis comes through, well, he’s not going to be long for this world. He is told he probably has two years to go.
This is in the early 1960s. Two years? Hawking’s alive today, which is baffling in itself. He’s outlived plenty of supporters and probably even more detractors. He’s outlived John Candy, Chris Farley, Amy Winehouse, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher bloody Hitchens. Plus a bunch of popes and Mother Theresa.
How? Well, it all comes down to having the love of a good woman, three kids, the NHS, being a professor at Cambridge, becoming fabulously wealthy, and around the clock care.
The film implies all of this was done, along with caring for the kids, exclusively by Jane. She’s a total goddamn saint, but the strain begins to tell. She could be reaching the end of her tether. Maybe having another kid could alleviate the burden?
Yes, that would surely help. Her mother (Emily Watson, in this flick for about 10 seconds) suggests she go sing in a choir again.
Jane, appalled, archly intones to her mother “That’s probably the most English thing anyone has ever said”, which is, in a way, the funniest thing in the whole flick. Not because it is so very British, in fact it’s nowhere near as British or English either as bellowing “Bloody Peasant!” at a member of the lower orders or accusing a friend of ‘going native’ when they don’t want to join you in a spot of colonial moving target practice.
We understand that Jane’s burden is immense, and her mother is doing what she thinks would help. What I understand is that the only reason Emily Watson, a great actress, was employed for these 10 seconds was to get Person A (Jane) in proximity to Person B (Jonathan) in a timely fashion.
Who is Jonathan (Charlie Cox)? Why, he’s another saintly saint who walks among us. So devoted does he become to the family, to Jane, that you couldn’t possibly think ill of him for what comes next.
A lonely, tortured soul, he doesn’t for a moment seem like he’s trying to offer more ‘support’ than is appropriate, he is attentive to the wife, super helpful to the professor, and gets along nicely with the kids. Who could possibly object to this arrangement?
Well, the makers of this flick clearly did, because they didn’t reveal that Jonathan moved in with the family and supported them from close by, not a distance.
But hark! Is that an incredibly convenient coincidence on the horizon? As Jane’s feelings for Jonathan grow, is something going to happen to threaten their perfect idyll? When Jane and Jonathan take the kids camping, and the professor flies to France or Switzerland or one of those other loser countries to watch some opera, could there be something that all the characters are heading towards?
As Jane crawls towards Jonathan’s tent, plaintively whispering his name, clearly indicating to me that they finally solved some of the universe’s mysteries themselves for once, does it almost imply that her infidelity pretty much nearly killed Hawking through some cosmic contrivance / karma?
The film clearly structures it so, despite events not transpiring so in the real world. Also, whatever it was that the good professor was trying to watch, which, along with Jane’s naughtiness, was trying to kill him, we have no idea what it was. There seemed to be some kind of orgy of light, or some kind of supernova on stage, which is funny to me, only because Hawking’s attack of pneumonia prevented him from ever getting near that theatre in our own Earth history.
Most awfully, his condition and the pneumonia leads to a tracheotomy, removing the last of his ability to communicate using his own vocal chords. This flick correctly shows that looking after Hawking after this, which was a full time job before, became even more of a full time job somehow. Finally they get some nurses to share the load.
Well, I say ‘nurses’, being the plural form of the word, but they only show one nurse attending him. At exactly the same moment, Jane starts wearing the kinds of throat covering awful clothes that Penelope Keith used to wear in To The Manor Born or The Good Life: horrible frilly collars that look like they’re trying to strangle the wearer or that the blouse is trying to eat the wearer’s head.
Jane also is brittle and peevish in all her interactions with her wonderful husband from here on in. Who can blame her, when a redheaded Scottish woman blows into town, does everything she used to do, only better, with a cheeky grin and a lusty insinuation in everything she says, especially with that charming Scottish brogue?
Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) is a breath of fresh air, and whatever’s left within the proff’s husk of a body, by now communicating with his trademark robotic voice, responds to her. All that Hawking has to do now is cast the old wife aside to make room for the new. It’s a story as old as red sports cars and breast implants.
Some tears are shed, the Queen gives old Hawko a medal or something, but everything’s okay, because after a while Jane is reconciled to everything that happened (unlike in real life), and time runs backwards, taking us back through the film, back to when they first met and there was all that fragile possibility of a life to look forward to.
Sure, it’s awash in sentimentality, and it completely manipulates the actual story of these people’s lives, but it’s impossible for me not to respond to what is shown, to what they achieve. He is a brilliant man, and, allegedly, quite a jerk, and he achieved much and hurt a bunch of people and suffered a physical ailment no-one should endure. It’s good for us to consider the fresh hell the people around him would have had to endure to let him keep going with his work.
Also, it reminds you of the following: so you, yeah you. You weren’t diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral scoliosis, were you? You haven’t had a tracheotomy, and been confined to a wheelchair, barely being able to move anything other a finger and some of your cheek for decades, have you?
He fundamentally transformed our understanding of the universe even with all these horrible, horrible conditions.
And so what are the rest of us doing with our lives?
I’m joking, I’m joking of course. I’m sure we’re doing plenty. After all, there’s all that beer to drink, and all those episodes of Master Chef / The Block aren’t going to watch themselves.
6 times remind me again, why is Professor Stephen Hawking famous, because this flick never really made it that clear out of 10
“There should be no boundaries to human endeavor. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there's life, there is hope.” – great, now I feel even shittier about how little I’ve achieved in life, thanks, Professor – The Theory of Everything