Finally a movie that answers the age-old question: Does Stephen Hawking watch Dancing with the Stars?
Okay, no, it doesn’t answer that. But go ahead and assume yes.
More like, is Stephen Hawking kind of a dick?
You go into this movie knowing that, whatever else, there will be a sure thing on your ballet for this year’s Oscar pool: Eddie Redmayne has already won. You may be less prepared for the fact that at times this movie feels like a companion piece to Interstellar (and I mean that in a good way) and that when the lights come on during the end credits, you’ll be caught in a packed theatre with tears still wet on your face.
This movie is strikingly well-lit. I loved the lighting, the glow, it felt romantic, and helped you remember that in fact this is not so much a biopic as a love story between Dr Hawking and his first wife, Jane. Eddie Redmayne was fairly forgettable in Les Miserables but absolutely claims the screen in this role, capturing expressiveness even in stillness, and showcasing joy and wit not easily conveyed. Felicity Jones, as Jane, may take a back seat on paper, but her performance stands up every bit to his. It’s a subtle portrayal, but strong and sure. Stephen Hawking, the concept, the icon, belongs to us all, but Felicity Jones reminds us that he is a man, and once, he belonged just to her. And there’s so much vulnerability and heartbreak, as a couple once deeply in love are forced into the caretaker and reluctant patient role that chafes for both of them.
I haven’t read Jane Hawking’s book upon which this movie is based. She wrote an earlier one that was much less forgiving, painting Hawking as controlling and almost dictatorish, and you can kind of pick up hints of that even in this second, gentler version, his manipulation of events, his reluctance to express gratitude.
When Stephen and Jane are still a very young couple, Hawking’s father tries to warn her away, saying that this will not be a battle but rather a defeat. He’s wrong and he’s right. Because there is a battle. Stephen outlives the projection by 50 years (and counting). But love is simply not enough. We see love grow, and then wither. And so this movie works much better as a study of love’s ability to withstand challenges than as a traditional biopic. Because I have read A Brief History of Time, and though there are touches, this movie is really “science lite”. It glosses over some pretty major milestones if the measure is the man, and not his marriage. But this is not a story about the failure of marriage because even as it crumbles, it seems a triumph that it lasted at all, and certainly as long as it did.
I wondered what Marsh would make of this movie – he won an Oscar some time ago for his documentary, Man On Wire – but would his work translate? If this was anything other than a story of real, living people, of a living legend in fact, it would be less dazzling. Certainly we’ve got a couple of knock-out performances and some very pretty things to look at, period wise, and even a few well-timed chuckles and some gorgeous gothic backdrops, but pulled together, does it make a Best Picture? It’s hard to say, because of course this isn’t just another period romance, this is the Stephen Hawking story, or at least a piece of it, and it feels incomplete for having just skirted around the outside of his genius. The thing that makes him most remarkable is remarked upon the least, and that feels a bit hollow. I still liked this movie tremendously, and was moved by it, but I suppose I also mourn for the many missing pieces.