The image of Stephen Hawking slouched in his motorized wheelchair has become so iconic that few people realize he once walked, spoke, laughed, and fell in love like everyone else.
At the time Hawking was diagnosed with ALS at age 21, he was a doctoral student at Cambridge and already had ambitions of discovering the origins of the universe. He was also in love with a young arts student named Jane Wilde.
“The Theory of Everything,” the British film released in North America last November, is based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s 2008 memoir, “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.” The movie has been nominated for five Academy Awards at the upcoming Oscars, and it will be screened at The Music Hall in Portsmouth from Feb. 24-26, as well as at the Memorial Union Building at the University of New Hampshire from Feb. 19-22.
While Stephen Hawking’s vast contributions to science are well known, the film reveals the personal struggles he faced as his muscles wasted away. It also reveals the trials of his first wife Jane, who stayed with him as he lost the ability to walk and talk, and who tended to their family while he became a world-famous physicist. The film is at once heart-wrenching and inspiring, with striking performances by Eddie Redmayne as Stephen and Felicity Jones as Jane, both earning Oscar nods.
The film begins in 1963 at Cambridge, where Stephen is a lazy but brilliant student trying to develop a topic for his thesis. He and Jane at first seem like an unlikely couple — he’s an atheistic science buff and she’s a churchgoing student of romance languages. But they are mutually smitten, and she resolves to stick with him even after he’s diagnosed with a rare, untreatable illness and given two years to live. Of course, Stephen outlives that prognosis (he’s now 73 and still working), and his ideas catapult him to the forefront of theoretical physics, altering our understanding of the universe.
Jane is by Stephen’s side as he goes from crutches to a wheelchair, from slurred speech to mute silence. She gets him dressed, feeds him, and wheels him around the house, even as she raises their child — make that two children — no, make that three children. In one scene, she’s in the process of putting on Stephen’s sweater when their daughter starts crying and she’s forced to rush off to see what’s the matter. The moment illustrates Jane’s ordeal, and also Stephen’s resilience — sitting there with a sweater pulled halfway over his head, he conjures one of his most significant revelations.
Actor Eddie Redmayne very believably embodies the crippling progress of Hawking’s disease.
Redmayne is worthy of his Oscar nomination (and of the Golden Globe he already received). He very believably embodies the crippling progress of the disease, exhibiting at turns Hawking’s despondence and frustration, and his strength and determination. Even when his motor skills are reduced to labored facial twitches, he manages to convey emotion and meaning without words or gestures. Later, when we first hear his digitized voice (with its robotic, American accent), we finally fully recognize the famous Stephen Hawking.
Jones, too, offers a compelling performance as Jane, who is understandably torn between her devotion to her husband and her desire to have a “normal” family. She remains a sympathetic character even as she becomes increasingly drawn to Jonathan (Charlie Cox) — the kind, widowed church musician who assists the family. It speaks to the uniqueness of their relationship that Jane and Stephen remain friends to this day, decades after they separated, got divorced and both remarried.
Director James Marsh, whose previous masterpiece was the 2008 documentary “Man on Wire,” does a remarkable job of bringing out the distinctly human elements of a story steeped in the science of black holes and the history of time. For this achievement, screenwriter Anthony McCarten also deserves much credit (the film has been nominated for best picture and best adapted screenplay, as well as best original score by Jóhann Jóhannsson).
Stephen Hawking is a man who famously aspired to “know the mind of God.” “The Theory of Everything” does not accomplish that triumph, but it does bring us closer to knowing the mind, and heart, of Stephen Hawking. And those are two organs that have remained exceedingly active long after his body became dormant.
“The Theory of Everything” will be screened at The Music Hall, 28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth, 603-436-2400, from Feb. 24-26 at 7 p.m., and on Feb. 26 at 1 p.m. Tickets are $10-$8. It will also be screened at the Memorial Union Building, Theater 1, University of New Hampshire, 83 Main St., Durham, 603-862-2600, from Feb. 19-22 at 6:45 and 9:15 p.m. Admission is free.