Stephen Hawking, Unbound

The Theory of Everything

Directed by James Marsh  

Written by Jane Hawking (book) and Anthony McCarten (screenplay)

Reviewed by Marion DS Dreyfus

It is by now axiomatic that Eddie Redmayne “does” Stephen Hawking remarkably well. He studied ALS patients, viewed dozens of films, and met Hawking several times. Hawking has even endorsed Redmayne’s characterization as accurate.

At one point in this engrossing film about the astrophysicist who has outlived his doctor’s predictions by some 40-plus years, Redmayne as Hawking is in his wheelchair, curled up in the well-known curled fiddlehead fern posture, when a young student in the audience drops her pen. Imagining he will ‘rescue’ the lady and retrieve her pen, Redmayne/Hawking steps gallantly and invisibly out of his wheelchair, straightens up to his full height and his handsome visage, strides down the few steps, lifts the red ballpoint from its inconspicuous place on the floor, and gently flourishes it to the collegian, who smiles. Breathtaking to see the transformation both out of Hawking, then back in.

The sensitive audience gasps, since it may be an imaginary episode, but seeing Redmayne for over an hour angled into the unnatural poses forced by Hawking’s disease (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), one is shocked and alarmed that he can so easily uncrook himself. Indeed, far from being disabled and less than fully presentable, Redmayne in life was a recent contender for People’s annual Sexiest Man Alive this year. That he lost to ‘Thor,’ Liam Hemsworth, is no slur on Redmayne.

The film surprises in showing us the passage of Hawking from a ‘normal’ collegian, through his romance with first wife, Jane (an outstanding Felicity Jones), through the steady and incorrigible decline of his faculties of mobility and, eventually, even speech. The audience for the film itself surprises in not being uniformly PhD candidates, but regular people who might also attend flip entertainments like the embarrassing Dumb And Dumber To. (Note to English teachers: Rail against this abuse of homonyms. Hard enough to get texting maniacs to acknowledge spelling of any kind, what with Spell Check ruling the roost, let alone marketing an entire mass heehaw with a deliberate misspelling in its title.)

Others in the cast are equally good, including the now-husband of Jane, played by an excellent Tom Prior, who was such a help to the Hawking duo with their three children, and the now-wife of Hawking (who even in his wheelchair managed to gather his rosebuds a second time. Evidently though not much else on his physiognomy worked, that still worked fine).

Though the subject matter of space is fascinating, few in a general audience know much of the specialized vocabulary, dark matter, wormholes and novae that form the bread and butter of such as Hawking, but the film does not condescend, and it shows a magnificent Jane holding her own in explaining the larger outlines of what her husband does. We don’t, on the other hand, get very much of the stuff of the field, and attending the recent American Museum of Natural History’s first extremely fun-filled and informative Hackathon, on space and all the majestic mysteries attached thereunto, I am happy to see the field is getting much-needed attention. Finally.

Redmayne conveys with a twinkle the sharp wit that is Hawking’s, amazingly enough. We are by now more familiar with Hawking’s robotic voice than we were with his organic original. I predict that ideas of Hawking will now devolve more on Redmayne’s portrayal of the scientist than on the man himself, much as many of our latter-day impressions of famed historical figure recent and past tend to transmute into their movie personnae.

In the case of Theory/Everything, little damage will accrue if we do so in this case.

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