Film in review – “The Theory of Everything”

Theory_of_EverythingThe story of Stephen Hawking is a compelling one, and this film does a very credible job of developing it. Of particular interest is the way they depict the early days of Hawking’s Cambridge career when he was just another student – a promising one, sure, but somewhat intermittent in fulfilling his homework obligations (depending on whether it challenged/interested him). He spends most of his time with his fellow science majors drinking in the pub, talking, and yes, occasionally going to dances. Which is where he met Jane (Felicity Jones), the “helpmate” who changed his life.

Because right about the time Mr. Hawking was beginning to dazzle his professors with his creative academic work and startling outside-the-box thinking, he began to develop debilitating physical symptoms. When the diagnosis was confirmed, it was worse than everyone feared: he’d contracted ALS. Otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease (though few of Hawking’s Cambridge friends knew anything about Lou Gehrig). There’s no known cure. The body keeps shutting down more and more: first the major motor movements, like walking, and then the minor ones, like typing, until eventually even breathing and swallowing become difficult.

At first, Hawking (played with great skill by Eddie Redmayne) just sits in his dorm room and pouts, feeling sorry for himself, especially after his physician decreed that he had less than two years to live. He figured, “What’s the point of trying anymore?”

But the stalwart Jane wasn’t going to give up on him. Or let him give up on himself. She not only wills him to keep fighting, but marries him immediately and then instantly becomes his caregiver as he is increasingly unable to fend for himself. And despite his body shutting down on him, Hawking still manages to secure his Ph.D. in physics and mathematics with his dramatic, revolutionary theories about black holes in the universe.

What’s interesting from a religious perspective is how at first, in Hawking’s view of the cosmos, there was no room for God. And then later, when he was convinced that something – or Someone – had to give the whole inert matter an initial push, Hawking seemed to allow for the idea of a divine Creator. Later, when he decided that the universe is infinite, without beginning or end, he then decreed that there was no longer any place for God in the cosmos, or at least as the Divine Being was traditionally understood.

Perhaps. And perhaps the exclusively scientific mathematicians and theoreticians like Hawking have a hard time comprehending the simple faith conviction that their own intelligence is itself a gift from God.

The odd thing about watching the touching dynamism between Stephen and Jane is that eventually the fiercely co-dependent relationship isn’t enough for either one of them. Jane, needing help, enlists the aid of the choir director in her Anglican church, who’s young, good-looking, and recently widowed. Despite how smart she is purported to be in her own right (Ph.D. in linguistic studies, specializing in medieval Spanish poets), she isn’t smart enough to figure out that this new emotional intimacy might morph into the old familiar love triangle. And even after the predictable happens, she still isn’t able to figure out that the next person she hires to help, an attractive woman who obviously fawns over Jane’s now-celebrity husband, could also steal his affection despite his relative inability to demonstrate it (or perhaps even because of it). And so we have this odd dynamic of Jane being a significant driving force in Stephen’s life, but eventually leaving him – and still, at the end, they assure us that everyone involved is living happily ever after. Hmm. I wonder if they asked the three kids?

Yes, there is no doubt that Hawking is genetically brilliant and has a beautiful mind despite his unfortunately ravaged body. And that in itself is inspirational, even if he does presume to know everything.


RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.