When I first heard that this was going to be a movie, I got pretty excited. I love both Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne, and the concept seemed pretty awesome: the life of Jane and Stephen Hawking. Most people know of Stephen Hawking (if only from his Simpsons and Big Bang Theory appearances), but a “major motion picture” (as they like to say) about his life and his wife? Sounds good to me. (There were other movies before, notably the BBC’s Hawking, where Benedict Cumberbatch played the physicist.)
The film is based on Jane Hawking’s Traveling to Infinity: My life with Stephen. Jane is an accomplished academic in her own right, having earned her PhD in Spanish poetry while she was married to Hawking. When she met Stephen he was at Cambridge working on his PhD. In real life, she knew about Stephen’s ALS before they started dating; in the movie, she doesn’t (Stephen doesn’t know either–it’s diagnosed later).
The one flaw this film has is that it’s pretty abrupt. It has a two hour running time, and I think it could’ve been longer, if only for the sake of exposition. We move from scene to scene pretty quickly, and there are montages of time passing that are treated to look like 60s “home movies”, where important plot points speed by: the Hawkings’ wedding, the birth of their first two children, family vacations, etc. I’m not saying we needed to spend endless time on these things, since the point of the movie is his relationship with Jane, but I would’ve liked to have seen more about their early married life, especially the birth of their first child, in order to lay the ground work for what comes later.
The early scenes are very well done. Redmayne plays Hawking as a sort of dashing, witty nerd, which is very close to Jane’s description of him in the memoir. Jane falls in love with him pretty quickly, and even though he tries to push her away after the diagnosis of motor neuron disease (it wasn’t called ALS in the 60s, apparently), she is persistent.
The movie speeds through their early married years, then focuses on Stephen earning his PhD and some of his work with his doctoral advisor (played winningly by David Thewlis of Harry Potter and The Lady). There’s a dinner party, celebrating his work, with his friends in attendance, but where Hawking’s feelings of isolation and disability becomes quite apparent.
It’s at this point that Jane determines she needs help–she can’t handle three children and Stephen. Her mother suggests she get out of the house and join the church choir. Well, the choir director, Jonathan Jones (a great Charlie Cox), is willing to give piano lessons to Robbie (their eldest–their children are Robbie, Lucy, and Timothy),and Jane invites him over to dinner. Stephen gives his assent to having Jonathan help around the house. Eventually he becomes almost another member of the family–going on vacations with them, helping Stephen in just about every capacity, etc.
Of course, people start to talk. At Tim’s christening, Mrs. Hawking corners Jane in the kitchen and asks whose son Tim is. Jonathan overhears this, and leaves the house–after confessing to Jane that he has feelings for her, and Jane telling him that she has them as well.
At this point, Stephen is confined to a wheelchair, but he’s giving lectures, winning prizes, and is traveling quite a bit. Stephen’s work is only briefly explained, and there are two scenes of him giving lectures. If you’re interested in his work, you’re going to have to go elsewhere–this isn’t A Beautiful Mind, where the work is explained in some detail, with fun images (like the women in the bar, in that movie). It’s only briefly sketched.
The turning point in the movie is when Stephen takes ill during a trip to Bordeaux. He’s gone with some students to see an opera (he’s a huge opera buff, particularly Wagner), and Jane and Jonathan are taking the kids camping in the same area, Jane still obviously wrestling with her feelings for Jonathan. Stephen is rushed to the hospital during a performance and is diagnosed with pneumonia. A ridiculous French doctor asks her if she should just let him die. Jane fiercely resists this, and says he will be transferred to England, where he receives the tracheotomy that removes his ability to speak.
The scene after the procedure, where Jane is trying to teach Stephen how to use an alphabet board, is amazingly good acting. From this point on, Redmayne doesn’t use his voice at all. Everything is conveyed in his face and posture. It’s really brilliant work. You can feel the agony he’s in at having his voice taken from him, at the existence he’s now living, and you can also see how much it tears Jane apart, to have done this to him, although she knows her husband wants to live.It’s a really crushingly emotional scene (and probably more so for me, because I have a huge thing about trachs. I never ever want one unless I absolutely have to have one. So I totally sympathized here.)
This brings in the introduction of the computer that becomes Stephen’s voice to the world, and also his nurse/second wife, Elaine. This is where I got a bit muddled. It is obviously that Jane is jealous of Elaine. It’s obvious she still has feelings for Stephen. But yet she doesn’t…I don’t know. Try to stop the relationship? I don’t know if she could, really. She might have been so emotionally drained. But when Stephen tells her than Elaine is traveling with him to America, Jane starts to cry. It’s as if she knows that their relationship is over (and in actuality, Stephen did ask Jane for a divorce and married Elaine, whom he also later divorced). The scene is well done, but it muddled me and made me sad, because obviously these two still have deep feelings for each other. But I guess that wasn’t enough.
The movie ends with Jane, Stephen, and their children at Buckingham Palace, where Stephen has received an honor from the queen (He does refuse a knighthood). At the end of the movie, they watch their children play in the gardens, and Stephen tells Jane: “Look what we made.”
Jane does marry Jonathan, and is still married to him. She and Stephen have three grandchildren and remain good friends.
The movie itself has a lot of strong points, the biggest being the performances of Redmayne, Jones, Cox, and Thewlis. But like I said above, I wished we’d have had more actual scenes, instead of montages, to depict Jane and Stephen’s relationship. I think that’s why I don’t think it will win Best Picture, because there are a few flaws in the storytelling. But the acting is just gorgeous (as are the costumes, lighting, and set design).
Redmayne does a tremendous job showing emotion without saying anything in the latter bits of the movie. You can tell he’s still the same Stephen, even though he can’t talk: his humor, intelligence, wit, etc. are all still in tact. The scene where he’s essentially ending his marriage to Jane is done without him saying anything (his computer does the talking), but you can just tell from his face how hard this is for him. Actors are often told to use their entire body to portray a character (I know directors who are fond of saying that emotion doesn’t stop at the neck), and this is a master class in it.
Felicity Jones truly deserves Best Actress for her work here. She’s stubborn, fiery, massively intelligent, and loves her husband fiercely. This is a great role for her and she inhabits it fully. She does justice to Jane Hawking. Charlie Cox is just a fantastically warm and sympathetic actor. And Thewlis is just great in everything I see him in.
So we bring the Best Actor race back: I really think it’s a coin toss. The Academy loves to reward actors who change their physicality for a role (Nicole Kidman in The Hours, etc.) But Keaton has been in the business a long time, he’s never been nominated for an Oscar, and he never may be, again. So there may be that in consideration, as well. Eddie Redmayne is my age (yes, we’re in our early thirties), and he’s going to do more things–we hope. 🙂 (I hope!). I’m not saying this is a good way to give Oscars, but it’s often done. Jimmy Stewart won his Oscar for The Philadelphia Story, when it wasn’t really his strongest performance. The ways of the Acting Oscars are strange, indeed.
Both actors give strong, textured, impressive performances. Either one would be a well-deserved winner. I’m going to bet that Keaton wins, though, because of the above. But if I’m wrong, I’d be OK with that. (Assuming Redmayne wins. 🙂 ).