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There is no question that a movie featuring a man with one of the greatest minds of all time was never going to be an easy feat, and yet, despite that, documentary-come-movie-director James Marsh (Man on Wire) has undoubtedly conquered this astonishing story. Teaming with screenwriter, Anthony McCarten (Death of a Superhero), they have well used the second, considerably uplifted edition of Jane Hawking’s autobiography, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking as the essential cornerstone, and have with it woven a masterly tribute to Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane. It is an understandable transition for a documentary director to make, and one that he makes well.
Portrayed by Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables, My Week with Marilyn) and Felicity Jones (The Tempest, Breathe In), two British actors, both of whom have been ‘up and coming’ for several years now, their love story begins within moments of the opening credits, with their first meeting, at a party in Cambridge in 1963, and it is clear therefore, from the offset, that it is the story of tfheir romance alone which is the centrepiece. So much has been said, and shall be said, about the astonishing career of Hawking; this is a moment to be shared with Jane.
Their first meeting at the blue-washed party is spent with the pair deep in conversation in a hallway, and ends with Jane hastily scrawling her telephone number on a handkerchief. Their next chance meeting comes about in a pub, and it is here that Stephen’s famously flirtatious and confident, cheeky humour nature first shines through (later illustrated with a beautiful scene in which he poses, paper bag upon his head, as a Darlek, his new electronic voice chiming ‘exterminate’ as he whizzes around his lounge in his electric wheelchair), as he shuns Jane’s attempt at introducing her companions in his eagerness to talk to her; his new fixation. From then on their relationship snowballs, with a smitten Hawkings waiting outside of Jane’s church on a Sunday morning to guarantee a chance to see her again, to cheekily announcing to his family that he intends to ask Jane to the Cambridge University May Ball over a family dinner – at which Jane is present. Because of course, while it’s clear to see that she was more than ready to accept his invitation in the first place, few would humiliate a man in front of his family with a blunt refusal. Clever him, indeed.
A beautifully cinematic version of the May Ball follows, and remains more or less true to page, from the strangely romantic (in a you-had-to-be-there kind of way) lines about the effect of the fluorescence in Tide washing powder under UV lights, to the beautifully lit, isolated stone bridge upon which the pair slow danced beneath twinkling strings of lights, and of course, that to which Hawkings dedicates his life work; our universe beheld through the night’s sky.
Hawking’s theories are touched upon, beginning with a mingling of scenes depicting his initial spark of inspiration regarding the birth of time and our universe, and the first steps of his calculations to prove his theory, and this is a perfect moment for McCarten to throw the inevitable spanner in the works. It’s impressive to witness an actor simultaneously limp and swagger his way across a courtyard, I must say, and it’s heart-breaking to see played out what we all already knew would come; the painful looking fall upon the flagstone path, the hospital tests, the diagnosis of motor neuron disease, and with it, a brutal life expectancy (lifted slightly only by our knowing just how much Hawking has already exceeded his estimated years). In actual fact, however, the diagnosis came prior to his relationship with Jane, who heard of it by chance through friends of her own, rather than solemnly from Brian (Harry Lloyd; Iron Lady, Jane Eyre), a friend of Stephen’s. Surely the reality is all the more romantic? Falling in love and initially embarking on a relationship knowing full well of Stephen’s life expectancy, rather than this ‘well I love you now so let’s just spend as much time as we have together’ version?
It is at this moment that Jones perfectly portrays Jane’s fierce determination to continue regardless, summed perfectly in a scene in which she informs Stephen’s father that though she doesn’t ‘look like a terribly strong person’, she loves Stephen, and he loves her, concluding with ‘we’re going to fight this illness together – all of us’. Her strength is present throughout, but rarely displayed in such steely clarity; Jones’ portrayal is wonderfully underplayed, subtle and quiet, but ever present.
She takes on the task of wife, nurse, personal assistant and, soon, mother, remaining in the shadow of her husband throughout their twenty-five years of marriage. I imagine, however, that life with the Hawkings’ was never as ordinary as the nostalgic home-video-esque scenes depict. Jane’s own studies and ambitions are cast aside, only fleetingly shown as a way of introducing her frustrations with a scene of her attempts to work at her kitchen table while her children and husband noisily run riot on his new electric wheelchair, flattening all in their path, including the coffee table. Besides a fleeting mention that she one day hopes to gain a PHD in poetry, the achievement itself is saved for one of the pre-credit facts. Jane did in fact gain a PHD in Medieval Spanish Poetry. She may, in many ways, be the polar opposite of the borderline-atheist scientist, but she is so much more than just a pretty wife and carer, and in this sense, the film definitely does not credit her well enough.
The toll of such a marriage as this one does of course show, and accumulates in a row in the family car, during which Jane declares openly one of their great taboos; this is not a normal family. This point is only clarified further with a parallel scene involving the family friend who would go on to become her second husband; widowed choirmaster, Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox: Stardust, Downton Abbey) taking the wheel, and Stephen’s place, as the ‘what could have been’ father figure to their children.
However, I feel the film does a disservice to Jane with her implied affair between with Jonathan. There may be elements that hint at accuracy; Jonathan was already a family friend by the time of their third child’s birth, and his paternity was in fact questioned by Stephen’s mother, but is it really necessary to suggest that Jonathan and Jane, having already secretly confessed their feelings for one another, succumbed to them at the same moment that Stephen was taken gravely ill by pneumonia?
Things escalate further with the introduction of Elaine Mason, the live-in nurse who becomes Stephen’s second wife. Portrayed seductively by Maxine Peake (Shameless, The Village), it is clear even to those with no prior knowledge of the real Hawkings’ lives that the once fresh-faced, now dowdy Jane does not stand a chance next to this enticing redhead.
The film does, as they often do, insist on both condensing the trials of life and filing its natural disarray into carefully stacked, neat little boxes, while simultaneously dramatizing key moments with changes of setting, elaborate lines and added tension. The clichés are there, and well used though they are, they cannot be missed.
A specific example of McCarten’s played down realism is the ultimate fight between Stephen and Jane which resulted in the demise of their marriage. In her autobiography, Jane speaks about how the decision came at the end of a heated argument during a family holiday, and a letter in which Stephen explains his plans to leave her for his nurse, Elaine. Instead, bittersweet and wrought with emotion as the quiet, mutual decision is, Jones had already done too good a job in showing Jane’s awareness as to the growing affection between her husband and his nurse, resulting only in a deflating moment to behold. I imagine that we are supposed to accept that their marriage had come to its natural end, as they had both already found their second spouses, and so, yes, let us just part ways and be happy, but it would have been nice to have witnessed Jane become, just for a moment, more than the quietly strong, uncomplaining wife. Besides, I think it is safe to assume from the emotions wrought in the first edition of her autobiography, Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen, that things were not all roses between them for several years following their marriage.
Ergo, this can’t be considered an entirely honest portrayal, though true enough to warrant a tearful, positive response from Hawking himself and approval from he, Jane and their children.
Redmayne and Jones both give remarkable performances, and while it can already be argued that Redmayne’s big break has already come to him, with Les Miserables, Jones is still waiting for hers; I sincerely hope that this shall be it. As for Redmayne, I feel this is a considerably greater performance than any prior ‘big break’; his attention to detail has been outstanding. His Hawkings did not deteriorate rapidly, but the clues were there from the offset; from the perpetually wonky glasses and slight tilt of his head and shoulders, a twitch of that perpetual pout, and his hands are actors in his own right. I could not help but wince at seeing his uncomfortable gait, laying his weight on the side of his feet, and I felt exhausted just watching his slow pace with a walking stick in each hand. As for his leading lady, I genuinely both admired and pitied poor Jane, a woman who abandoned her own hopes and dreams to nurse a genius and raise their three children. Even if she is an alleged adulterer in this film, who can help but at least partially sympathise? She’s a better woman than I, any day.
In many ways, the basic skeleton of this film is in line with much of its genre, from the vague, dream-like and, in my opinion, wholly unnecessary flash-forward prologue harking to one of the final scenes, to the standard white-on-black points of fact which roll prior to the end credits, but this is not simply a re-hashed working. Nevertheless, there is nothing stale or overdone about it, and already, I sense a wave of award nominations in the mist.