Once, during a long, multi-day car journey with my mother many years ago, we popped in a recorded copy of Dr. Stephen Hawking’s wildly popular bestseller A Brief History of Time, in which the brilliant physicist attempts to explain both modern physics and his working theories behind some of the most beguiling and perplexing issues scientists like him wrestle with their entire careers. As I recall, the opening chapter is hopeful, he manages to take deeply complex theories and simplify them enough for absolute lay people to be able to grasp: Essentially, he explains, he’s searching for proof, one way or the other, as to God’s existence. Simple, beautiful, but when chapter two rolled around with him beginning to work his way through Relativity, both my mom and I got hopelessly muddled and we popped the tape out and looked at each other reproachfully.
Fortunately, James Marsh’s touching-but-not-sentimental film about Hawking’s early beginnings as a scientist at Cambridge in 1963, his romance with Jane Wilde, which lead to the pair getting married, and his subsequent suffering with ALS, which ultimately left him almost completely paralyzed and unable to speak except through a computer voice simulator, only uses physics, and Hawking’s own radical ideas of such, as starting points in the film. In the process, thanks in great deal by superb performances by the leads Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, he humanizes the great thinker without lionizing him. Instead of some sappy ode to the human spirit, we get a far more forthright and sensible trip into the remarkable ways we adapt to horrific circumstances and stay focused on our jobs.
The film begins with Hawking cavorting around with his fellow young PhD. candidates, drinking indiscriminately, sleeping in late and missing lectures, and listening to Wagner at full blast when he chooses to actually bear down and do some work. After he meets Jane at a Cambridge party, the two enjoy a whirlwind sort of romance together (their first kiss, on a bridge on campus, comes, appropriately enough, under a blanket of stars, a piquant symbol, if not a bit pat). Then he is diagnosed, goes through a rough spell of self-pity, and eventually learns to lean and rely upon the surprisingly strong shoulders of his wife, who bears the brunt of his care, while also taking care of their young children, and still working towards her own doctorate in Romance Languages (yes, but really).
Meanwhile, Dr. Hawking’s theories about black holes, space time, and the universe’s singularity begin to rock the scientific world, earning him more and more acclaim. His disease continues to progress, eventually robbing him entirely of speech, but through a clever technological innovation, he is able to write his book without the assistance of his nurse, the fetching Beryl (Emily Watson), of whom he eventually develops stronger feelings.
Jane, meanwhile, finds herself in love with Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), the musical conductor at her local church, a widower, who takes to her family – including Stephen – with great care and resolve. What we’re left with then, is less a love story in the classic big romance kind of Hollywood standard, with storybook plot contrivances and an ending dripping in light syrup, but a real love story: Two people who care deeply for one another, even as they eventually pull away into different orbits.
The film relies very heavily on its actors to make the whole enterprise work properly, and both are terrific. But Redmayne, who somehow contorts his body into pretzel-like configurations in order to portray Stephen’s deteriorating condition, is able to capture the soul of his character, even as his physicality and speech are taken away from his toolbox. His is a performance of extreme precision, so effective, in a later scene, during a sort of fantasy sequence where Dr. Hawking imagines being able to stand up normally and bend down to pick up an audience member’s pen, goes through such an astonishing change of body movement, it’s as if you can see each individual muscle slowly relax into normalcy.
Physicists and those of a scientific bent might well be disappointed by the lack of much of Dr. Hawking’s hard science theorems and equations – so much is glossed over and watered down for us, it might as well be dubbed Hawking-lite – but in their estimable place, there is the story of this man, the love he shares with his family, and his determination to fulfill the fantastic destiny of his intelligence. Whether that comes from a higher power (or “A single unifying equation that explains everything in the universe” as he puts it at one point), or is just the law of averages, still is yet to be determined, but he has vowed to keep working on that problem.