Cosmologist Stephen Hawking is one of the most intriguing figures of the twentieth century, not only for his deep and impressive contributions to theoretical physics, but also for the profound personal challenges he faced in order to offer those contributions. Diagnosed with the debilitating neurological disorder amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also called ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) while in graduate school, Hawking was originally diagnosed with only two years of life yet regardless went on to become on of the most successful scientists of all time.
As the film depicts things, his initial reaction was to push away the woman he was in the midst of dating, Jane Wilde, but she wouldn’t allow it. The feeling from the film is that her determination and dedication to him likely went very far toward helping him deal with the debilitating conditions of the disease, including the loss of all voluntary muscle control. However, the sacrifices she had to make to support Stephen through his extreme health problems took a heavy toll on her emotionally and ultimately the relationship could not survive the twin challenges of his disease and his fame.
Portraying the film primarily through the eyes of Jane Hawking is also a useful tool for offering the relevant physics to the viewing audience. Jane herself has a doctorate in Romance languages, so is clearly an extremely intelligent woman, but since she is not a physicist, the explanations of Stephen Hawking’s scientific work are often offered and translated through the eyes of the non-physicist. This makes many of the more abstract concepts still accessible to those without strong scientific backgrounds.
One intriguing aspect of the film is the tension between Jane Hawking’s belief in God and Stephen Hawking’s firm naturalistic, atheist stance. This comes across early in their meeting and continues throughout the film, either explicitly or as subtext.
Hawking’s own memoir, My Brief History, discusses this period of his life, but somewhat downplays the personal aspects. While his scientific work is covered with a charm and wit, the details of his family life, including the details surrounding his first divorce, are offered almost in passing. This film, however, is based on the memoir of his first wife, Jane Hawking, entitled Travelling to Infinity. (This is the 2007 edition, which is a heavily updated edition of her original 1999 book, Music to Move the Stars.) I haven’t read Jane Hawking’s book, so can’t speak to the degree to which the film remains true to her account.
The Academy Award for Best Actor went to Eddie Redmayne for his portrayal of Dr. Stephen Hawking. This was an intensely physical role, as Redmayne had to simulate the effects of the debilitating ALS condition. In a November 20, 2014, interview with The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Eddie Redmayne discussed preparing for the role. It is certainly a well-deserved Oscar, but the portrayal of Jane Hawking by actress Felicity Jones was also equally challenging and compelling, though on an emotional rather than a physical level.
Though Hawking’s life is an amazing success story, as a love story the film is a bittersweet tragedy. It provides a little of something for everyone. For those who are already familiar with Hawking’s scientific achievements, it provides a glimpse into a personal aspect of his life that he has often been reluctant to discuss (even in his own memoir). For those who are not familiar with Hawking, it offers a deeply compelling dramatic account of his first marriage, while also providing the context in which to become exposed to his scientific insights about the nature of physics and black holes. In short, the film has a little of something for everyone.