Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Theory of Everything

2b  ¬2b: That is the Question
"What if the Hokey-Pokey IS What It's All About?"

Before Benedict Cumberbatch played Alan Turing as he does this movie season, he was the first person to play Dr. Stephen Hawking in a dramatization of the theoretical cosmologist's life for the BBC.

Now there's a feature film about Hawking, which is just a bit more fascinating than the BBC tele-film and, frankly, might be one of the best written films of the year, The Theory of Everything.

Based on the memoir of Hawking's first wife, Jane Wilde (played by Felicity Jones—in a fierce performance), it tells the same story as the BBC film but from the human, not theoretical side, and finds a fascinating sub-text and motivation that joins both work and personal lives portrayed. For the story of Hawking's amazing work as a theoretical physicist despite the debilitating effects of ALS is well-known, but the personal story is not.

The story starts in Cambridge in the 1960's when young physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne from
Les Miserables and My Week with Marilyn) meets Jane at a Cambridge mixer. He's gangly, awkward, but smart and funny. She's an English rose, tentative but hopeful. He's studying theoretical physics; she's in the humanities ("medieval poets of Iberian Peninsula"). She's CofE ("I have a problem with the whole celestial dictatorship premise" he offers); he's a cosmologist ("It's a kind of religion for intelligent atheists"). The one thing they have in common—tenacity.
While she pursues the Iberian poets, and he, his area of inquiry (inspired by his instructor, played by David Thewliss, after a visit with theorist Roger Penrose—played by Christopher McKay), they pursue each other, culminating in a Cambridge dance where, eerily, magically, the white shirts and frocks glow under a black-light. "You know what causes it?" Hawking offers.  She doesn't, and braces for a long, complicated answer. "Tide," her says simply. "The phosphorous in the detergent causes the glow under ultra-violet light." It's a funny answer for a beautiful image. And it might even distract from seeing that the physicist's hands are already starting to twist.
Tide. And he decides after some deliberation to focus his thesis on time. But, as Chaucer, and a great many who came before, observed, both wait for no man. Hawking's balance is becoming erratic, and he has difficulty holding the chalk to write his equations on a blackboard. A brutal fall in the Cambridge courtyard puts him in hospital and a spinal tap produces a diagnosis—ALS, a motor-neuron disease that will cripple him, but leave his mind intact. As he's told by his physician, "The thoughts are not affected. It's just that no one will know what they are." In one of the many wonderful images of the film, Hawking sits in a bath staring at his increasingly claw-like hands, as if willing them with that enormous intellect to straighten.
The prognosis is two years. Hawking hides himself away, grieving, determined to focus on his studies while he still has the time to do so. He refuses to see Jane, determined that she not have to endure what, for him, is a death sentence. He breaks off any idea of a romance that is doomed from the start.

But, she is as tenacious as he.
Hawking's story is an amazing one. But, it is incomplete without the story of the woman who stood by him when he was unable to stand. As he amazed the world with his theories and leaps of imagination—let alone his ability to communicate them to a large public—she was his caretaker, wife and mother of his children, sacrificing everything to keep him alive and thinking. Think he has courage? What about her?

The Theory of Everything is something of a revelation to me, as Hawking's story is inspiring, but his divorce from his first wife (and subsequent marriage to his nurse) always struck me as an abandonment of the woman who struck with him for thirty years through his worsening physical condition and annoyed me in my judgmental way. I'm not one to know the circumstances, as I'll never know what it's like to a) be a genius and b) be trapped in a non-responsive body. What The Theory of Everything provides is the missing component in the equation: the first marriage to Jane Wilde lasted 30 years; when they first met, fell in love, married, they were making the best of a bad situation that was only supposed to last two.
Think of that and the place it put Wilde, who loved him, in. That Hawking lived so long (and still abides) is a miracle unheard of. But, it is not what Wilde, in love with, and devoted to, the fully functioning man could expect or hope for. Hawking's long life was a life sentence for her, one she did not sign up for when the crisis hit for them both.

It evokes an odd mixture of guilt and empathy to consider what that might be for her. Two years might have been manageable for a woman in love in her 20's, but had she known that Hawking would live so long, would she have made the same brave, selfless decision?

At what point does tenacity have its limits for any human being?
And at what point does dependency become empathy?  Love is a two-way street—in the view of so much sacrifice, sacrifices have to be made.

The Theory of Everything is not a normal love story, it is, actually, much more than that. There is no "they lived happily ever after" here ("ever after" evoking both triumph and dread). Love is not simple, like in the movies and romance novels where things fade to black before things get interesting. Love is complicated and messy...and thrilling and horrible. Sometimes it can only be endured by the strength of that needing and selfless bond of love, and the combination, the chemistry—the equation—of the two people who share it (on either side of the equal sign). Love is tough stuff. And, like aging, it is not for wimps.

The Theory of Everything evokes such wondering, dark thoughts as it unspools and for days after, exposing love in all its complications. I found it refreshing from the steady shining eyed twaddle of romance films, and for the first time in years, I dropped tears, watching it.

Highly recommended.

Stephen Hawking is now 72 years old.
Jones, Hawking and Redmayne

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