Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Theory of Everything

U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Stephen Hawking in the White House before presenting him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on August 12, 2009 

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING       B-                 
Great Britain  (123 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  James Marsh 

Biographical profiles (biopics) do not typically make for great cinema, even when well regarded by critics, as instead they tend to be showpieces for great acting performances, through some films can transcend the genre, where the performances anchor more complicated works like Scorsese’s RAGING BULL (1980), Michael Apted’s COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER (1980), Jim Sheridan’s MY LEFT FOOT (1989), Bennett Miller’s CAPOTE (2005), or James Mangold’s WALK THE LINE (2005).  This does not fall into that distinguished company, largely because the source material is Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, the 2007 memoir by Stephen Hawking’s wife Jane, so the portrait isn’t so much about physics or the celebrated scientist, but instead describes what it was like to care for someone attempting to cope with such a grave disability.  However, due to the larger than life persona of Hawking, one of the great scientific minds of the 20th century, where his lifelong quest, much like Einstein before him, has been to explain the meaning of the universe, his stature overshadows and literally dwarfs what this picture has to offer.  As an incomplete picture of Hawking himself, concentrating more on the long suffering wife, it’s all about the performances, with Eddie Redmayne, from Hick (2011), My Week with Marilyn (2011), and LES MISÉRABLES (2012) as Hawking, and Felicity Jones from Like Crazy (2011), as his wife Jane.  It’s the first major film where the young actors have been allowed starring roles, both literally carrying the picture with Oscar worthy performances.  Like Daniel Day-Lewis portraying an artist with cerebral palsy, learning to write and paint with his only controllable limb, his left foot, Redmayne is near miraculous in his stunning display of physicality, even as he spends half the film in a wheelchair, expressing the deteriorating effects of motor neuron disease, otherwise known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, where the average survival rate even today is only three or four years, as most die of respiratory failure.  When Hawking was diagnosed in 1963 at the age of 21, he was given 2 years to live, yet is miraculously still alive today, even posting about the film on social media, though he is almost entirely paralyzed and communicates through an electronic speech-generating device.

Stephen Hawking Tells Us What He Really Thinks Of 'The Theory of Everything'  Laura Rosenfeld from Tech Times, November 19, 2014: 

I thought Eddie Redmayne portrayed me very well in The Theory of Everything Movie. He spent time with ALS sufferers so he could be authentic. At times, I thought he was me.

Seeing the film has given me the opportunity to reflect on my life. Although I'm severely disabled, I have been successful in my scientific work. I travel widely and have been to Antarctica and Easter Island, down in a submarine and up on a zero gravity flight. One day I hope to go into space.

I've been privileged to gain some understanding of the way the universe operates through my work. But it would be an empty universe indeed without the people that I love.

Despite the brilliance of a continually disfigured Redmayne in a performance that reportedly made the celebrated scientist cry, though a showcase of the most heartbreaking moments of one’s life might have a tendency to do that, not to be overshadowed, Felicity Jones is a marvel of inner strength and determination herself, where her character knows what she’s getting into when she meets Hawking in 1963 and still chooses to marry him and take care of this man almost single handedly.  The film is as much about her selfless resolve and her devotion to duty in dealing with such a severe disability, where the film is more about their marriage than anything having to do with science.  While the audience sees early signs of brilliance from Hawking, there’s no reason to believe that Jane saw him as anything more than simply a man she fell in love with and married, where in the film she seems more concerned about his religious beliefs than his scientific accomplishments.  Adapted from the second memoir of Jane Hawking by Anthony McCarten, which is an abridged reworking of her original 1999 memoir, Music to Move the Stars:  A Life with Stephen, this is unfortunately the root of the film’s problems, as the perspective is simply too narrow and the focus too ordinary, turning this into a typical Hollywood tearjerker that magnifies the personal struggles at the expense of learning more about Hawking’s place in the scientific community.  When it was released the book was considered scandalous, as Hawking by that time was an avowed celebrity, worshipped throughout the entire world, where his success was considered a triumph over his disability, but until the publication and huge success of A Brief History of Time in 1988, selling more than 5 million copies, translated into 33 different languages, for the previous 25-years, Jane spent most of that time in the back-breaking labor of caring for an invalid husband while raising three children, described in her book as living under the “tyranny” of his disability (she nicknamed him “the puppeteer” and “the emperor”), as the Hawkings were financially strapped and dependent on others, including the MacArthur Foundation, for the exorbitant costs connected to his medical care.  During this time Jane received little support, encouragement, or recognition for the sacrifices she was making.  Her book was viewed in the media with skeptical negativity for bringing these dirty details into light, where her candor was not appreciated, but after 1989, his book and other projects brought in huge sums of money, which finally made Hawking a wealthy man and more than likely played a large role in the collapse of their marriage.   

Among the sources of conflict between them was religion, as Jane was a fervent believer while he was an atheist, his family (barely seen in the movie) was never fond of Jane and were reportedly never nice to her, and while she sacrificed to provide for his every need, he would isolate himself from his family where he could be devoted to physics.  The mounting pressures on Jane’s shoulders are the real focus of the film, where it was her mother’s advice to find an outlet of her own, suggesting she sing in the church choir, which brings her a certain amount of solace, where she meets Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox) as the choirmaster, who recently lost his wife to illness and develops a close relationship with Jane and the rest of the Hawking family in the 1980’s, helping provide a certain stability to an otherwise out of control situation.  Yet as Jane keeps having children, rumors persist, even within Jane’s own family, about who is the actual father, where it’s hard to believe it could be Stephen, yet surprisingly this function remains “automatic,” as he describes it, which is a bit amazing considering the extreme degree of his physical paralysis.  For decades, Hawking ignored his physical deterioration, exerting all his focus into his intellectual pursuits, where one of the psychological impacts of the disease is a detached overcompensation of the intellectual at the expense of that part of the brain that processes emotional development.  Marsh is a visually fluid director, where perhaps the most attractive cinematic techniques on display are the highly colorful video flashback sequences, which are like happy memories as seen through home movies.  By 1990, however, Stephen decides to leave Jane and live in America with his nurse, Elaine Mason (Mazine Peake), who was married at the time, but they later married, all but discontinuing contact with Jane.  Soon afterwards, the house and garden the family had shared in Cambridge were torn down, where according to Jane, “I felt it had all been taken away from me…I was absolutely committed to the marriage and would never have ended it.  When we first knew each other he was very funny and very engaging, and I had great faith.  I was so positive about Stephen fulfilling his genius.”  Ironically, left out of the film was Stephen’s eventual separation and divorce from Elaine as well in 2006, following which Hawking resumed closer relationships with Jane, his children, and grandchildren.  The film, based upon the revised memoir written in 2007, actually reflects their happier period together. 

While Hawking, through his study of black holes, is the first to bring together ideas of quantum mechanics and gravitation in an enlightening and consistently provocative manner, something that will be a matter of discussion for years to come, his disease-related physical deterioration continues to progress, and by 2005 he began to control his communication device with movements of his cheek muscles, with a rate of about one word per minute, and by 2009 he could no longer drive his electronic wheelchair, where the fear is he will fall into complete paralysis, or locked-in syndrome.  He has increased breathing difficulties, sometimes requiring a ventilator, and has been hospitalized several times.  For 90% of ALS patients, every second of every minute can be a living hell, where many die of respiratory failure or commit suicide by refusing to have a tracheotomy.  The film shows how family members can be tricked and/or persuaded to make the decision for the patient not to have a tracheotomy, often at the advice of medical professionals, though this treads on dangerous moral and ethical grounds, and may even be considered a crime.

No comments:

Post a Comment