The Reality Equation
As long as you’re comfortable with the idea that a biopic is, at best, a selective interpretation of a life and not a truthful or strictly realist document of the same, then there’s no impediment to enjoying them. We’ve long understood that a life is a many-sided thing, and that being the subject doesn’t guarantee any deep or meaningful understanding of events or the actors involved, but the picture’s further complicated when filmmakers begin the excavation before their subject’s died.
Other than the obvious, namely that the story being told isn’t yet over, the main problem stems from reverence toward a man or woman who’s still clomping around. The Iron Lady was hopelessly compromised because those involved were determined, in wrongheaded deference to the notion of balance, to be apolitical, which is a little like making a film about the Challenger space shuttle but refusing to be drawn on its safety record. The Theory of Everything, a trawl through thirty years in the life of Prof Stephen Hawking, is just as sanitized. The ugly and disputed parts have been sucked into a black hole.
One’s moved and inspired by the story as told, just never tested. We take up with Hawking in 1963 when he was a graduate student at Cambridge. Eddie Redmayne’s transformation from precocious geek to quietly suffering motor neurone sufferer (his casting being a natural slight to actors with advanced and debilitating motor neurone disease everywhere) is vivid. He gives a great physical performance, embodying, no pun intended, the frustration and despair of a man possessed of a razor sharp intellect, forced to watch his body atrophy. Felicity Jones, as Jane, Hawking’s girlfriend, then spouse, is stoic and reserved, giving a fine sense of a woman first supportive, then trapped, in a marriage divested of the intimacy and emotional support other lifers hope for and sometime receive.
Given the difficulties experienced by both characters, the knee jerk reaction is to praise director James Marsh’s evenhandedness. Jones is tempted by choirmaster Charlie Cox but does her best to bury her feelings (if she does act on them we’re spared it lest she appear unsympathetic) while Redmayne resists getting further help despite the toll his illness is taking on his wife, but then we understand that Hawking’s a proud man who’s somewhat in denial about the scale and speed of his degeneration. Everything’s understated and dignified, the audience invited to meter out their sympathy equally while reserving judgment. The problem with this is that it’s a reprise of a relationship designed to meet the approval of the living-breathing counterparts.
Perhaps Hawking was a great deal less reasonable than he appears here. Uncharacteristically for an academic he may have even flirted with insensitivity on occasion. Perhaps Jane Hawking was sleeping with her choirmaster, later home help, for years before the voice synthesized scientist called time to marry his live-in nurse. We simply don’t know and sadly the movie offers us no chance to find out.
However it’s the treatment of the aforementioned nurse, Elaine Mason, played here by Maxine Peake as a likable and refreshingly sexually liberated carer, that shows how far James Marsh is prepared to go in order to match the content of his movie with its bright and colourful grit-free palate. Mason, Hawking aficionados will know, was the Professor’s second wife, later accused by his family of vesting sustained physical and psychological abuse on her famous spouse. This being the story of Stephen and Jane, the film ends on an upbeat and inspirational note, with Peake’s character balancing out Jones’ love interest. Both, it’s suggested, evolve to outgrow their old love but find a suitable, better-suited replacement. It’s the kind of ending an audience can get behind. But alleged though the abuse is (Hawking has remained tight lipped on it), Mason’s flattering and benign inclusion will surely consign this movie to the fantasy section of some people’s Blu-ray collections. Still, the whole film’s washed this way in the interests of cherry picking the parts Jo and Jolene Public want to see; the struggle with adversity, the heartache, the bond between two people under trying circumstances, and of course the ultimate triumph of optimism: Hawking’s mantra that there’s no boundary to human endeavor.
So The Theory of Everything hits all the award buttons. It’s a story of towering intellectual achievement juxtaposed with almost unimaginable physical decline and better yet, given the requirement to handle such an illness with sensitivity and not judge any of the people involved, it’s a tale in which the only villain is a medical condition. But beyond dates, times and engagements, how truthful is it? “Your thoughts won’t change, it’s just that eventually no one will know what they are”, the diagnosing doctor tells a devastated young Hawking. Unfortunately after two hours of biopic we’re no closer to knowing what the great man actually thought and felt during this period, and worse yet, the filmmaker doesn’t have a theory they’re prepared to share. Nicely played and mounted then, but a defense of this movie’s biographical credentials might be tougher than a Cambridge physics PhD viva.