Even though many people may be unfamiliar with Stephen Hawking's work or what it means, they know the icon of the man with the synthesized voice and electric wheelchair. The movie, directed by James Marsh, is based on Jane Wilde Hawking's memoir, "Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen."
Based on that alone, you would expect this to be either Jane's or Stephen's story but it ends up being neither. Though the movie tries to focus on the difficulties of living with and caring for someone with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), it does not focus on the scientific work that makes Stephen Hawking unique nor does it focus on sources of conflict within the marriage and for this reason the movie misses the mark. Instead Marsh chooses to tell his audience a heroic tale of overcoming obstacles. Not that there is anything wrong with that but, without the famous names attached to the story, this is nothing more than a generic feel-good story.
The One Equation to Rule Them All
Physicists are, by nature, very simple minded creatures who revel in elegant solutions to complex problems. It may come as a surprise to some that all of the basic equations governing our Universe, everything that describes the rich complexity of the world we inhabit, can be written all on one page. You would think that physicists would be satisfied but they are not. The ultimate quest is to be express and describe everything we know as one equation - a theory of everything. It is this idea that we see the young Hawking, played by Eddie Redmayne, express to the very religious Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) when they first meet in 1963.
Though part of the story, science serves as a mere background prop. This is unfortunate for several reasons. The first is that Stephen lives in a world of science and where he works, the Department of Physics at Cambridge University (the Cavendish Laboratory), has played an important part in Physics history. In one scene we witness Hawking's adviser, Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis) showing his student the room where the electron was discovered by J. J. Thompson and the atom was first split by Ernest Rutherford; Sciama is considered one of the fathers of modern cosmology, the field Hawking eventually chose to pursue.
It is here we see one of Marsh's first missteps. Physics plays an important in Hawking's life and is an eventual contributing factor in his troubled marriage with Jane. Admittedly, the majority of the movie's audience lack training in physics but without understanding Hawking's work, how he revolutionized Physics or how that contributed to his rising fame, we can not understand why conflict existed in the marriage. Instead Marsh falls into the trap of every celebrity biopic by skimming over key events and never examining them in greater detail.
The Beginning of the Universe
Black holes were a mystery from when Karl Schwarzschild first solved Einstein's field equations in 1915. These massive bodies which occupy a point from which not even light could escape posed a serious problem to the Physics community. All objects with any temperature emit radiation but if a black hole emits none then it has no temperature - a physical impossibility which led many to doubt that they could exist.
Hawking solved this problem by using both Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity to show what is probably his greatest discovery - Hawking Radiation - that black holes emit light and in so doing eventually evaporate into nothingness. The movie does pay tribute to the science (well, sort of) where Hawking peers through the holes of his sweater at the dying embers of a fireplace.
Genius is the ability to go from A to D without having to go through B and C.
This is obviously a tribute to black body radiation and Hawking's insight that a black hole will glow but again this is another misstep by the director. Hawking is a genius and there is no arguing that point but we often mistake a genius as one who can see the solution without going through the steps to solve the problem. This is never true. Instead, Marsh introduces the scene, not to lie to the viewer, for no other reason but to introduce the event that makes Hawking famous.
Is there no God in the Universe?
Marsh also shies away from the couple's philosophical and spiritual views; Stephen is an atheist and Jane a devout Catholic, something that is established early in the movie. It is somewhat surprising that two kids with such polar opposite views would choose to get married but they do. What is not surprising that these views would cause conflict between the two.
Again, when we examine a person's life, we must look at everything in context. Because Marsh focuses almost exclusively on Jane and Stephen in telling his story, he misses the world around them and in so doing, misses an integral part of the story.
When Stephen started his graduate studies, there were two prevailing hypotheses of how the Universe began. The first was Fred Hoyle's Steady State Theory - Hoyle was the scientist Hawking wanted to work with but could not - and the second was the Big Bang Theory. One theory implied that the Universe did not have a beginning while the other implied that it did.
Hawking's graduate thesis on a primordial black hole that birthed the Universe lent favor to the Big Bang Theory. It meant that the Universe had a beginning and was created into existence. This must have been important to the devout Jane who possibly debated and hoped to use her husband's science to prove what she already believed. While the movie does focus on this - sort of - it only happens during the course of one scene and only in a trivial way.
A Big Crunch?
Though many people may shy away from the science, which admittedly is difficult, and choose to focus on the story, they miss on an integral part of what makes the main characters who they are. We won't avoid discussing music history if we are doing a biopic on a musician, would we?
This doesn't mean that Marsh doesn't do the story justice. He portrays his characters as supremely heroic in playing the cards they were dealt to overcome the odds and, in so doing, paints a beautiful portrait of the two main characters. Unfortunately, it also means that he doesn't focus on some of the negative aspects of their lives, e.g. the eventual decay of Stephen and Jane's marriage, or the reasons for it.
This means that, though uplifting and inspiring, the story isn't quite about Stephen or Jane Hawking. Taking out the science and the key events, this story could have been about any couple living with ALS but the question is, do we want more? Do we really care? We care about heroes and stories of triumphs. This makes us happy as we leave the theater and that, more importantly, is what wins awards.