Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Brief Histories

The Champs-Elysées is quite crowded on a Sunday afternoon, but the cinemas are not. Fewer than thirty people were in the theatre for the Theory of Everything, despite five Oscar nominations,  the story of Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde the arts student he fell in love with whilst studying at Cambridge in the 1960s. 

Hawking was a bright but unfocused and rather socially inept student of cosmology, scraping into Cambridge and given just two years to live following the diagnosis of Lou Gehrig's disease when only twenty-one. 
The trailer shows his first major fall, a real smackdown on an unsympathetically hard surface in a Cambridge quad. The story follows the love story between himself and fellow Cambridge arts student, Jane Wilde. Over the course of their marriage, we watch Stephen's body collapse as his academic reputation soars, and fault lines were exposed that tested the boundaries of their relationship and dramatically altered the course of both of their lives. There's not a lot of physics - it really isn't a quantum mechanical primer - the stuff about black holes is fuzzily vague and the blackboard equations aren't on-screen for long enough to check their accuracy. It's a good people drama, a bit schmaltzy and Britishly uptight, a nice glimpse of what Cambridge might have been like in the late 1950s. The male lead - who was he again - is definite Oscar bait and Jane's primly C of E middle classness evoked a personal shudder or two.
Jane and Stephen

I did find some of the editing bizarrely careless and they took a few serious liberties with the history of physics. Jane scribbles her phone number on a napkin and thrusts it into Stephen's hand after a party. The 0223 prefix written on the napkin didn't take effect until some time later. There's a beautiful image of the two of them at a May Ball where Sagittarius is clearly visible in the starlit firmament, impossible to see at that elevation and time of year. Irritatingly, when the family goes to Bordeaux on holiday, they seem to have bent time a little too far, driving a model of car that was not released until five years later. 
Hawking, like so many scientists, is brilliant when addressing the "what" and the "how". He is on less certain ground, however, when talking about the "why".  He cannot explain where the laws of physics came from or why they work, neither can he explain his faith in the non-existence of the afterlife, for example and attempting to do so via reductio ad absurdum uses metaphysics rather naively. Science is universal, faith is of necessity personal. He asserts his uncomfortable atheism early in the film and one can't help but wonder whether as his ideas hardened into a more securely held and more strident version, that this in part contributed to the failure of his marriage. OK, enough nitpicking. Six and a half out of ten, a 2:1 but not a First.

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