By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 15, 2014)
“There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that, I am extremely grateful.”
–Dr. Stephen W. Hawking
There’s a truly jaw-dropping moment in James Marsh’s new biopic about theoretical physicist/cosmologist Stephen Hawking, in which lead actor Eddie Redmayne (without the benefit of camera trickery or CGI) literally “unfolds” his paralyzed, crumpled body from the confines of his wheelchair, and walks offstage into the audience to gracefully kneel down and pick up a pencil. A lump formed in my throat, and I began to cry like I haven’t cried at a film since…I don’t know when (maybe Old Yeller, when I was 6?). I know what you’re thinking. I might as well write: “I saw this film today. There was this one incredible scene, where this guy gets up off the couch, and flips on a light switch. I wept.” But it’s all about context. In context of all the events leading up to that scene, it makes for an extraordinarily moving moment (as ‘they’ say…”You weren’t there, man!”).
Hawking’s back-story is fairly well-known; that he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 21, and given 2 years to live. At the time, he was studying cosmology at Cambridge, and already formulating the patented type of eloquent equations that deign to explain Life, the Universe, and Everything…which would one day become his stock in trade, elevating him to rock star status within the realm of theoretical physics. Of course, being a young man in his 20s, he also had a healthy interest in, erm, “biology” whilst at university. He became smitten with fellow Cambridge student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), who stood by him through thick and thin as his physical condition deteriorated, and eventually became his wife. Anthony McCarten’s screenplay mostly focuses on this personal aspect of Hawking’s life; not surprising when you consider he adapted from Jane Hawking’s 2007 autobiographical account, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen.
Depending on your expectations going in, this could be perceived as either the curse or the blessing of Marsh’s approach to Hawking’s story. If you have a geeky interest in getting a handle on exactly how Dr. Hawking derived his most lauded theories over the years, you’ll be disappointed at the notable lack of hard science in the film. However, if you’re not in the mood for a physics lecture, and instead looking for (yes, I’m going to say it) another inspirational biopic about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of insurmountable odds, this one is right in your wheelhouse. In that respect, the movie is somewhat formulaic, but so well executed and skillfully acted that only the clinically dead would fail to be moved. Marsh is an elegant filmmaker; he directed one of the most beautifully constructed documentaries of recent years, Man on Wire (my review).
That being said, there is a certain amount of irony in the fact that, by all accounts, the “real” Stephen Hawking couldn’t care a whit as to whether the story of his physical travails inspires you, me, or the fence post; he famously balks at any empathetic interest in that part of his life. For him, it’s all about the work, and the seemingly boundless inquisitiveness and capabilities of his mind which (thankfully) has remained largely unaffected by his hellish maladies. On the other hand, you get a sense from the film that Hawking would still not have been able to achieve everything that he has with that great mind without the stalwart devotion, encouragement and assistance of people in his life like Jane, or Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) a personal nurse who became his second wife. Consequently, Marsh’s film is just as much their story as it Hawking’s (as should be).
I suspect I will not be the only reviewer who feels compelled to draw parallels between Redmayne’s performance and Daniel Day-Lewis’ transformation in My Left Foot, Jim Sheridan’s 1989 biopic about cerebral palsy-afflicted artist and writer Christy Brown. And it’s not just about the obvious similarities in how both actors appear willing to (literally) suffer for their art, contorting their bodies into gruelingly uncomfortable positions for periods of time. It’s more about how each was able to express his character’s humanity, in a manner transcending gimmickry of performance. At least that’s my theory.