Dublin folklore has it that on hearing Stephen Hawking was in the same local restaurant, another diner couldn’t resist approaching the eminent physicist to gushingly tell him how great he was… in The Simpsons. Urban myth? One likes to hope not, because if his mischievous wit revealed in this film is anything to go by, he would’ve had quite the chuckle at it.
Such is Hawking’s iconic status in popular culture, he even managed to graduate from the esteemed campus of Springfield. A career high along with a few other achievements, notably the odd theoretical breakthrough over the years initially showcased in his 1988 seminal work A Brief History of Time.
Films-goers fearing this one is for science boffins can heave a sigh of relief. There is, of course, the mandatory blackboard littered with enough impenetrable equations to trigger a nasty flashback among even the least maths averse of viewer, and the occasional chin-stroke exchanged between student and mentor (an unlikely David Thewlis); but theoretical physics is peripheral to the film’s main task of deftly unravelling the chemical reactions between two people over the course of a lengthy relationship, which both expected to be short-lived.
The film opens with the young erudite Hawking (a flawless Eddie Redmayne) strutting through the corridors of Cambridge dithering over what topic to chose for his PhD thesis, and marshaling his propensity for probability into the most prosaic of activities (the durability of an affair between characters in a film he watches, for example) in that self-deprecating way that only very smart people can. A collision with a student of Spanish and French poetry (“medieval poetry of the Iberian Peninsula” to be exact), Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), leaves them both starry-eyed. The two soon strike up a romance only for the heady rush of early love to be cruelly interrupted by his diagnosis of Motor Neuron Disease. Undeterred, Wilde declares her devotion, and the couple grab the remaining time available to them to dive headlong into marriage and family life.
Based on an adaptation of Jane Hawking’s book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking, the film chronicles their relationship over the subsequent thirty years. That it received the blessing from the entire Hawking family lends it an authenticity that allows the viewer to absorb the tenderness and tensions between them with the knowledge that they’re not being manipulated by any over-cooked schmaltz that the makers commendably manage to avoid.
Redmayne impresses with his uncanny portrayal of Hawking’s transition from youthful clumsiness through to middle-age with voice-assisted communication; while Jones captures Jane’s early unwavering devotion, and the ensuing complexities and challenges that inevitably arise from inhabiting a long-term caring role, with conviction.
An affecting, humorous, portrait of a couple that doubles up as Oscar bait with integrity. Also includes a crash-course in black hole singularity (whatever that is) using the aid of peas and spuds for the here-comes-the-science part. And toffs saunter about in gowns in between squashing into ye olde English pubs. Something for everyone then.