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Vikram Johri: Theories & everything

Vikram Johri 

Vikram Johri

The Theory of Everything, currently running in cinemas and tipped to be a big winner on Oscar night with five nominations, is a mixed beast. About the life of physicist Stephen Hawking, the movie had the potential to be a deeply affecting story of a man whose brilliance refused to be checkmated by the depredations of motor neuron disease.

Stephen Hawking, full disclaimer, is a figure of great fascination to me. For a generation growing up on advances in astronomy, Stephen Hawking represents the epitome of scientific glamour. I remember travelling to Delhi in January 2001 to attend his lecture where he riffed on, among other things, his paraphrasing of Einstein's famous dictum. "Not only does God play dice," he said with trademark glee, "but he sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen."

Naturally, I went into the movie expecting grand things, more so because this seems to be the spring of British giants on screen. There is, besides Hawking, Alan Turing, played by the redoubtable Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, itself vying for eight Oscars. That movie dovetails Turing's achievement in breaking Enigma, the German naval code during the Second World War, with his persecution for homosexuality. The Theory of Everything too, the trailer promised, would provide sufficient juice on Prof Hawking's private life, particularly his two marriages.

Sadly, the film attempts unsuccessfully to marry these rather disparate strands of Prof Hawking's life. This is not to say that the lead actors are not great. Eddie Redmayne is Stephen Hawking, to the last muscle twitch, reminiscent of the determination of a Daniel Day-Lewis to completely inhabit a character. Likewise for Felicity Jones, who plays the academic's wife Jane - albeit her role is not as physically demanding as Redmayne's.

We know that the two met at Cambridge and fell in love, and decided to get married in spite of his diagnosis having come in and the doctors giving him no more than two years. The decision to marry was due in no small measure to her adamant refusal to let him carry on with life, or whatever he assumed remained of it, by himself. Felicity Jones is remarkable in these scenes as she shows grit and determination in choosing love over what might appear the obvious choice.

We see flashes of this courage at several times in the film, for instance, when the physicist suffers from a severe bout of pneumonia and slips into a coma. Jane Hawking is presented with the choice of mercy-killing her husband which she stoutly declines, and greenlights the subsequent tracheotomy that saves his life but destroys his speech.

Much about Ms Hawking in the film, which is based on her memoir Travelling with Infinity: My Life With Stephen, corresponds to the impression of a dutiful life who sacrifices her own goals and even love (she delayed her PhD and did not marry her lover Jonathan Hellyer Jones until years later). The Theory of Everything gets into serious danger of becoming a film about one among the countless women who have throughout history turbocharged great men's ambitions at their own cost. Which is fine - but then it's not a Stephen Hawking film.

As for the science, there is nearly not enough in the film, apart from brief glimpses into the bravura theorising that forms the basis of our current understanding of the origins of the universe. The film also omits to account for his abortive affair with the real Theory of Everything, which nearly every self-respecting physicist has sworn off since the spectacular failure of string theory.

Stephen Hawking's progressive physical deterioration is the background against which romantic disappointments play out. He knew about the budding romance between his wife and Jonathan Jones, but he chose to look the other way because of his illness. On the other hand, his wife had a suspicion about his feelings for the nurse who comes in after his tracheotomy. But the scene where this revelation is brought into the open is schmaltzy and obfuscates everything the Hawking aficionado knows about the nature of the couple's relationship.

Jane Hawking, for your information, had portrayed her husband in rather unflattering light in her first account of life with him, called Music to Move the Stars. That book was published after the two had separated and the latter had married his nurse. The film, perhaps for cinematic reasons, disguises some of the blatantly uncomfortable dynamics of the Hawking household. There is only the slightest allusion to the difficulties of caring for a man who was intent on his work and who, for the longest time, refused external help for his condition. If the film had to be about Stephen Hawking, the querulous husband, I'd rather the director had gone the whole hog.

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First Published: Fri, February 20 2015. 22:38 IST