My review (out of 5 stars):
There aren’t too many biopics about scientists that hit the big screen, so I was excited when I heard there would be a major motion picture about the life of cosmologist and astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. I had read, as did millions of others, Hawking’s 1988 book A Brief History Of Time, and I’ve read enough popular science related to physics and astronomy to have understood that Hawking’s splashiest scientific contribution was the insight that one of the implications of quantum mechanics was that black holes, despite curving space to such an extent that no matter or energy could escape from them, would nonetheless have to emit radiation and have a temperature.
As a baseball fan who became a neuroscientist, I was also intrigued and impressed by the fact that Hawking has lived most of his 70+ years with the devastating condition called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which first achieved widespread public attention as baseball legend Lou Gehrig’s disease. Incidentally, diseases – like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Crohn’s disease, Bell’s palsy, and probably any other that you can think of – are generally named for the physician who first clearly defines the disorder in the published literature. Such was the impact of Gehrig’s plight that his disease may be the only exception – named for a famous sufferer. One wonders, absent Gehrig, if the disease might have been Hawking’s disease – his A Brief History Of Time was a bestseller, and the hardcover prominently displayed the wheelchair-bound author on its cover.
I knew from the previews that this movie would be more about the effect of ALS on his family than it would be about Hawking’s contributions to theories of physics. Given the fairly abstruse nature of Hawking’s work (despite his laudable attempts to explain it to the public), what else could the movie be? But then we enter a dangerous realm for the movie maker. Does one tell a documentary style tale of the central figure’s life? Or does one hyperbolize the life and give the central figure a larger-than-life nature? Does one stick to the facts, or does one use the facts as a jumping off point to tell a good story? And another thing to decide: does the story have a moral?
Surely, Hawking’s life could be used as the foundation of a morality play. It could be an overcoming disability story. Hawking wrote a best seller at the rate of about 4 words a minute, thanks to the amazing but nonetheless constrained system with which he manipulates a computer (a 1980s computer!) to form words without a keyboard. Hawking defended a PhD thesis at Cambridge after receiving news that he had 2 years to live. He traveled the world, gave lectures, and contributed to theoretical physics without the ability to feed himself or stand at a chalkboard. If so, though, the danger could have been emotionally manipulative scenes in which Hawking is told he can’t do this or that, in which he faces rejection from former friends – we’ve all seen these tropes before.
But it wasn’t this. To the credit of the writer and the director, Hawking’s story wasn’t given the Hollywood treatment that we must make this a “fight against prejudice” movie or an “overcome impossible odds” movie. For that we can be thankful.
But if it’s not that, it must be something. What was it?
I’m not sure. Now, I dislike predictable movies, or movies with pat endings, or movies in which the heroes can do no wrong and in which there is nothing redeeming about the villains. I like complex characters and complex stories. But I am enough a creature of habit to want a certain storytelling arc – there should be some build to a crisis and something I can take away from its resolution, even if the resolution is messy, like most real life resolutions are.
The problem with this movie, as a movie (it’s not a problem with Stephen Hawking’s life!), is that the arc was all wrong. The crisis happened at the beginning – and that crisis had no resolution. You don’t get better from ALS. The doctors gave him an estimated life span of 2 years. The resolution to that crisis, then, occurred when he didn’t die – when he entered, as it were, real life – got married, got a job, had a family. Much of the emotion – and believe me, it was plenty emotional – was in the first third of the film. Even knowing that the man would go on to have many decades of productive life, it was impossible not to be devastated watching him show his first symptoms; watching him receive a diagnosis of an unstoppable degeneration of the ability to walk, to speak, to breathe.
The second conflict in the movie was the burden carried by Hawking’s wife, Jane. In many respects, after the first third of the movie, she became the central character. (And this is another problem with the movie – in midstream, we must shift our central focus from one character to another.) On one hand that seemed like a bit of a cop out – I never really empathized with Stephen Hawking after that first third – he was, for the most part, unreadable. Instead our emotional center shifted to Jane. Jane had the burden of caring, eventually, for three children and a wheelchair bound husband who needed help with every basic chore: dressing, eating, going to the bathroom, bathing, all while pursuing her own studies. In the meantime, Jane began – understandably – to have feelings for a choir conductor who helped her take care of Stephen and the children. This relationship remained platonic, and Jane almost takes on the status of a super-human angel, suppressing her own desires in order to take care of Hawking.
Whatever the true details of Hawking’s life, it’s a movie – and when watching a movie, we have certain expectations as viewers. Drama demands that this new conflict must be resolved – either Hawking and his wife must have a fight and go their separate ways, or Hawking must realize his wife is an angel and must fight to keep her. Instead, the conflict is not resolved, and the movie ungently delivers unto us a new conflict: the nurse.
The movie hints at – but frustratingly does not specify – that Jane may have finally given in and slept with the choir director (Jonathan) while on a camping trip with him and the children. Simultaneously, Stephen is in France, and falls into a coma after a bout with pneumonia. He can only be revived following a tracheotomy, a procedure that will permanently cost him the ability to speak. Jane and Jonathan separate as she renews her intention to take care of her husband at all costs to herself. Rather than head us toward the expected happy ending, this instead leads us into a new conflict. A nurse, Elaine, is hired to help Stephen learn to communicate using a letter board, in the years before his famous synthesized voice is constructed.
Having now set up this third conflict, it almost feels as though the writer and director have run out of energy. They had plenty of interest in the first two conflicts, but nothing left for this third, and we are left to wonder what has happened? Stephen raises his eyebrows at the nurse – he’s ogling her, as much as a man can ogle with eyebrows and nothing else – and suddenly Jane has moved out of the house and the story, everyone seems to decide, is over. A brief history of time indeed! Einstein showed the world that as one accelerates toward the speed of light, time slows down. The Hawking movie people showed us that as one accelerates past the early conflicts in the Hawking story, time speeds up and we miss all the interesting bits.
So dramatically, the movie was a failure. We got a major unresolved conflict at the beginning, a major unsatisfyingly resolved conflict in the middle, and the final conflict, the resolution of which the movie depended upon, went by so quickly it was hard to know if anything happened at all. The movie evaporated all of a sudden like one of Hawking’s black holes.
As to the performances, though, they were superb. Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking was really brilliant. There is certainly plenty of film of Stephen Hawking by which Redmayne might have learned the appropriate postures and speech cadences of Hawking during the later stages of his life, but Redmayne was equally believable as the young Stephen, the Stephen just showing early symptoms of the disease who could still walk and talk relatively well. Physically he is a dead ringer for the man. He also “aged” believably on film – something not always convincing when a young actor is hired to portray young and old versions of the same person on film. Felicity Jones was also quite good as Jane, though she never seemed to age much during the film, even though it is hard to believe any normal human wouldn’t age at twice the normal rate given what she had to live through. I aged a year or two just watching her character struggle. Likewise the supporting cast was good as well; fortunately, the script did not call for the kind of overacting that is sometimes required when friends and family must turn their backs on a main character to meet the demands of pathos. The directing was measured, mostly allowing the story to speak for itself.
Real life doesn’t always follow the conventions of drama, though sometimes a clever scriptwriter can focus on the right part of the real life story to make it conform. Perhaps the sin of this movie, then, was that the writers were unwilling to alter the real story for the sake of dramatic convention. That’s laudable on one hand, though the drama suffers for it.
Two and a half stars out of five.