Professor Stephen Hawking is perhaps one of the few disabled people, along with musicians such as Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles – whose achievements are transcendent of their obvious limitations.
Hawking however, is perhaps more intriguing than some others because his condition, should have meant he passed on some time ago. The fact that he is still with us, and indeed still considered one of the brightest minds on the planet, has elevated his story to almost mythical status.
So it was only a matter of time before he was immortalized by Hollywood. It was always a question of when and how, rather than if. That being said, bringing Hawking to the big screen posed some significant risks. This was after all, a man who had divorced his first wife, married his former nurse and became estranged from his family for many years. He cannot be considered a saint.
The film’s focus is the story about the marriage of Stephen (played by Eddie Redmayne) and first wife Jane Wilde (played by Felicity Jones). This element of the Hawking mythos is perhaps most unique in terms of a counter point in popular culture. The true account of a marriage of unequal partners is something that is more common than many would imagine, but its realities are not often tackled in mainstream media.
The plot for the film is based on the second memoir released by Miss Wilde in 2007, after she and Hawking reconciled their friendship. It details Hawking beginning his PhD at Cambridge, his subsequent diagnosis with a rare form of motor neurone disease and the years of their marriage. The film focuses heavily on Jane’s (played by Felicity Jones) struggle to fulfill the role of carer, wife and individual.
While attempting to find some personal fulfillment, Jane forms a friendship with choirmaster Jonathan Hellyer Jones (played by Charlie Cox). Jane, Stephen and Joseph subsequently enter into open relationship of sorts. While remaining purely platonic, Jane and Jonathan a form very close relationship, with Jonathan accompanying the family on holidays, days out and being an ever present at home. Interestingly Hawking is portrayed as instigating the situation to further his own ambitions, sometimes to the detriment of his family.
In going down this route, the filmmakers successfully integrate lots of delicate moments that allow the actors to breathe. Redmayne is particularly good at communicating the underlying pride and will of Hawking. I will admit that I was skeptical, portraying Hawking faithfully in his reduce state is a great challenge to any actor. But Redmayne is flawless. The plot progress with Hawking’s health deteriorating, Jonathan and Jane grow apart, and Stephen’s resistance to dedicated care staff. The eventual incumbent, Ellen Mason (played by Maxine Peak) and Hawking a close relationship that eventually leads to Hawking leaving Jane for Ellen. The scene where this occurs is my favorite of the film. While perhaps these scenes air on the side of respect toward their subjects, these are subjects not often discussed in the public domain so the fact we are discussing them should be applauded.
A little caveat that I would throw in about the narrative; is that in some circles, Hawking’s remarkable tenacity and continued success, has been attributed to the amenities that wealth and fame afforded him. Yet for much of this film, we see quite the opposite. In fact, many of Stephen and Jane’s trials bare striking resemblance to what many in the UK have experienced during the unstable welfare reform.
TTOE has been criticized in some quarters for focusing too much on Hawking’s condition and the impact that it had on his life; as opposed to a greater focus on this work and undoubted genius. To me, such an argument as little merit, this is after all, cinema and not a biography. In chronicling the story of Stephen and Jane – TTOE creates a very modern love story.