James Marsh’s latest drama is an enjoyable, emotionally literate biopic of Stephen Hawking and his wife, Jane- but I couldn’t help but think, that sentence should read “…biopic of Jane Hawking and her husband, Stephen”.
This is a tricky argument to make- I’ve already practised it on a couple of friends, with mixed success. The real, reason people are going to watch TOE is for Eddie Redmayne’s extraordinary depiction of a certain wheelchair-bound physicist. Hopefully people will stay to absorb Felicity Jones’ equally remarkable performance of Jane, Stephen’s first wife and, for many years, the power behind the throne. As it happens, she is the authorial power-broker behind this story, as James Marsh has chosen to adapt her insightful autobiography- Travelling to Infinity: My life with Stephen.
The commercial weight behind this project is the mercurial Hawking, and thus, he is obviously going to be centre stage. But there was a strange sense that his place in this particular story wasn’t quite where he belonged. That Jones, relegated in the film as she so often is in the media, to the side, should be our eyes and ears, our lived experience, rather than her husband.
Let me make clear first- I really enjoyed this film. It had solid emotional heft, with two absolutely outstanding lead performances. The period details were nicely captured (by and large- the issue of a smoke-free pub in the 1960s has been exhaustively covered). I really like the way James Marsh draws seemingly peripheral characters to the fore in his work- my personal favourite being Man on Wire, his extraordinary documentary of wirewalker Phillipe Petit. The crucial thing with MOW is that Petit, for all his eccentricity and ego and charm, is never allowed to run away with the story- the people who enable him to live the life he enjoys are given prominent attention too. Shadowdancer, Marsh’s first fictional feature, achieves a similar thing, with Andrea Riseborough’s Collette allowed to stand out ahead of her militant brothers.
BUT- cue qualifying remarks- Marsh appears to lack the courage of his convictions to see the same theme through in TOE. There is a disjointed moment in the narrative where the story shifts, almost by necessity, from Stephen’s perspective to Jane’s. It happens around the point where Stephen’s progressive Motor Neurone Syndrome silences his slurring, effortful speech, and Redmayne enters the world of Hawking as we know him today. Jane’s story, Jane’s personal turmoil, start to become more prominent as Stephen rises from the ashes- no longer the valiant, doomed young physicist, but the Phoenix of physics, somehow a little grander and further away from us, the viewer.
It would be extremely hard to portray Stephen’s inner world in a naturalistic film- for this is what we are given- and so, I’m sympathetic to Marsh for not following Redmayne into Hawking’s trapped, voiceless mind… but what an experience it would have been. What innovative, stylistic ingenuity could’ve represented the wordless poetry of Hawking’s unique inner experience…?
BUT, as I must remind myself, THAT IS NOT THE FILM WE ARE WATCHING. This is clean, detail-centric naturalism, and so Marsh has stuck to his guns. So the question remains; if this is Jane’s story of her life with Stephen, why did we only switch to her perspective halfway through?
Think about it. The first half of the world, we see the world through Redmayne’s eyes. We see his Cambridge dorm, his Cambridge college, his friends and tutorials and eventually, his girlfriend, Jane. We join Stephen’s family for dinner, but never get beyond Jane’s front door. We watch him grapple with the awkwardness of early romance- to a lesser extent, we see her side of the story. But it was indisputably Stephen’s narrative we were following. I started to think, wouldn’t it be a nice stylistic cue- a piece of visual symbolism, if you will, if we were to be shown Jane’s side of the story, with Stephen perennially centre-stage? A piece of visual up-staging that signifies the entirety of Jane’s experience- which, we should remember, she is supposed to be relating to us.
Then, half-way through, The Switch. A beautiful moment, exactly the visual symbolism I was hoping for. Stephen, returned home from Vienna with a tracheotomy and a ruinous sense of despair- crumpled, back to the camera, shunted to the side of the frame. Two rooms; the living room/study, Stephen’s domain, and the kitchen- ostensibly, Jane’s space, where she is relegated to attempting a PhD of her own while Stephen messes around with their kids. Not to mention the classic place of exile for any woman with dreams of her own? And yet, Jane is not there. As she exits the frame of her husband’s story for the first time, Stephen, also for the first time, experiences life out of the limelight.
Which made the first half of the film seem like a wasted opportunity. I hated the way Cambridge was portrayed as some kind of Technicolor Arcardia, all soft edges and over-saturated colour tones. I felt uncomfortable how Jane was essentially a foil for Stephen for half the film. And I couldn’t help but think Stephen didn’t have to be so goddam nice all the time.
After this, Jane comes to the fore- her declining relationship with Stephen, and her blossoming one with Church music curate Jonathan, is sensitively handled. Stephen’s new persona; the one we all, to some degree, think we know, rises out of the ruin- and with it a new romantic interest of his own, played with reasonable delicacy by Maxine Peake. Jane and Stephen eventually have it out- and it’s delicate, romantic, and terribly sad. Sadly, it’s apocryphal- and the liberties taken in this part of the script have the effect of taking sandpaper to these lovingly-crafted characters- they are so cute and perfect together, how could they ever split up? Only if it’s amicable and heartbreaking and luvverly. This is the exact sentiment of the girls I was sat with in the cinema, who weepiness up to this point necessitated me to put my raincoat back on.
As it was, Jane and Stephen finish this charming story somewhat whitewashed- a little too perfect. It was like Marsh (or screenwriter Anthony McCarten, or Marsh’s producers perhaps) knew he was dealing with a national treasure, and decided that it would be too disrespectful to give him flaws, or callous moments, or allow him to hurt Jane with his spectacular lack of sentiment (he separated from her by letter). Does it diminish this genius, witty, father, if he isn’t as perfect as we like to think? Does it diminish Jane if she desired to have a life beyond Stephen, beyond the twenty years she assumed would be two?
Some people think I’m overstating it. I’m not saying Marsh hasn’t considered these things, and I remain a fan of his style and attention to detail. He’s done pretty well here. I just wish it had fulfilled the potential it was capable of.