Be prepared to have a 'what if I end up like that' conversation after this film. Mine ended with my husband, eyes full of concern, looking deeply into mine and stating with confidence: "don't worry, I won't put you in a home. I'll wheel you off a cliff first." Crass jokes aside, it does provoke discussions about care and expectations, about how we help those who need it in society about the advances in medicine and ethics - I'm not sure this film provides any answers, but it's good to spark debate.
It's 1960s and at Cambridge University it is crystal clear that Austin Powers and his 'swinging' buddies haven't reached the dorms of this studious town. Rather we see future physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) racing along on his obligatory bicycle (I think they are standard issue on entering the Uni) with fellow undergrad Brian (Harry Lloyd). They arrive at a party and he is introduced to future wife Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). Tragically at 21, Hawking learns he has incurable moror neuron disease (helpfully explained as Lou Gehrig's disease for the US market). Rather than accept defeat, he gets married and begins an ambitious PHD studying time. Against the odds, he lives on to discover new and controversial findings in science, achieving more than he or Jane imagined.
That sounds rather cosy, much like the tweed jackets and old fashioned pints of ale Hawkings and his buddies drink in the college bars. However, as we all know, it doesn't really pan out like that. I had a vague notion that Hawkings marriage didn't last, I knew he had children, and obviously, I knew he is still living, way beyond the predicted two years he had in the 1960s. This film explains the path of his life in a rather plodding linear way (the least exciting aspect of time) so it's really all about the acting, and I agree the performances are deservedly Oscar worthy. It creates moments of great pathos and sadness, but it felt a little too sketchy and rose tinted to be real enough.
- Firstly, every undergraduate is impossibly good-looking at Cambridge. Their end of semester formal's would put Cinderella to shame for ostentatious gilded glitter and glam. I've had friends who went to Cambridge, and I love them, but when I visited, there were a distinct lack of model good looks on the campus. Also, at the balls, people wore ill fitting DJs, drank cheap wine and danced to poor pop music. No ensemble jazz quartets did I see. However, Visit Cambridge must be tickled pink as the cinematography makes the city look stunning and ethereal. First class.
- Love: We see Jane as a naive undergraduate, hopeful with love and admiration that she can care for the boy she loves, and watch it unravel as the boy turns to a man, whose needs are ever more demanding. I thought Felicity Jones' performance was excellent as we see her fray under pressure and frustration, but stoically keep plodding on. As she laments to him 'I did love you. I did my best'. I think it's a fair, heart breaking comment. The film is balanced in the way it shows her resisting the temptation of a 'normal' life with family friend Jonathan but also her belittling behaviour when she speaks on Stephen's behalf.
- Women: Sadly, this film presents women in an obvious dichotomy of madonna/ whore. Or rather in Stephens case: matron/ naughty nurse. Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) is the fun-loving, confident speech therapist who exposes Jane's role as Mother as being dull, prescriptive and cold. She provocatively states, 'you must worship the ground he walks on' exposing the obvious irony to Jane. The following montage of mucking about, laughing and private jokes enhanced by a sunny camera filter, is in stark contrast to earlier grey scenes with a frustrated Jane attempting to finish her PHD while Stephen destroys the house playing with the children.
- Academia: In my experience of working with academics, the most eminent also appear to be the most selfish and arrogant. We don't see a lot of that in the film, but I'm sure it must have been there in real life. There is one moment where he delivers his key speech to a lecture hall of international colleagues. He seeks Jane's encouragement at the start, but by the end, when he is accepted triumphantly, she is left to catch a glimpse of her husband being wheeled away from her. A metaphor perhaps for how his work will take him away from her, their home, their relationship.
- Technology: I realised if Stephen Hawking had been born twenty years earlier, he may have never been able to communicate his work and that thought triggered a chain reaction of 'what if' other disabled people in the past were capable of such progress but were trapped by their illness' to convey their ideas. A tragic thought. I think 'Mirosoft Sam' should be renamed 'Microsoft Stephen' because if you ever hear that antiquated, digital voice it's distinctly Stephen Hawking speaking - no one else.
- Religion: thankfully this film is agnostic in it's comments on faith. Stephen holds to science like Jane holds to the Church of England, and both are seen to be mutually respectful of each other's beliefs.