Doing one’s best

This is my review of The Theory Of Everything [DVD] [2015].

Despite or perhaps because of my admiration for Steven Hawking's brilliance and the courageous determination shared with his former wife, now Jane Wilde, I was ambivalent about watching a film which I feared would be harrowing and intrusive as regards some of the more intimate aspects of motor neurone disease. In fact, it is a sensitive and moving portrayal of their lives from their first meeting when he was embarking on a PhD and about to be hit with the unexpected diagnosis of MND with two years to live.

The film is based on Jane Wilde's book, and in a radio interview I heard her approval of the production with particular praise for Felicity Jones's brilliant imitation of her own gestures and voice, including her clipped diction from a 1950s upbringing in an academic household. Eddie Redmayne also manages to assume with remarkable skill the appearance of Hawking as seen on television. It does not trouble me that he is not a genuinely disabled actor and I would think it hard to employ one since Hawking has to be shown in steady decline from the apparently healthy only slightly clumsy young man at the outset.

Since this is a commercial film, it touches fairly superficially on Hawking's mind-bending scientific theories and the grimmer details of managing his physical decline. The pain of the latter is shown in subtle ways as when, struggling to get him to co-operate over the use of a grossly inadequate letter-board to communicate after it has been necessary to give him a tracheotomy, Jane dissolves into silent tears. So, it becomes in essence the story of his relationship with his wife, with her part in the drama equal to his. Tragically, neither can fully express themselves, he because of his disability and she out of love, a sense of duty and her unusually reserved and self-controlled personality.

The tragedy is highlighted by the fact that, perhaps in particular if one is a woman, one tends to identify mostly with Jane's exhaustion as she struggles to care for him, bring up their three children, and produce her own PhD in odd disrupted moments at the kitchen table. Having insisted on caring for a man only predicted to have two years to live, it is ironically her support which played a major part in keeping him alive. When asked in an interview how matters could have been improved, she stated that it would have helped if Hawking had been prepared to discuss his illness with her, if she had received a great deal more assistance in caring for him, and if the nurses eventually hired had been more carefully vetted. The film is faithful to the truth in making all this clear, yet manages to do so with frequent touches of wry humour.

Although Hawking probably had to be selfish and take his wife for granted to survive, the film made me wonder whether his decision to divorce her to marry his nurse was in fact an act of generosity, in freeing Jane to marry the supportive family friend whom she had come to love. There are other interpretations, of course. Posing such questions feels prurient, but this is the inevitable result of making those who are still very much alive the subject of a mainstream film.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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