Spoilers abound like galaxies in the night sky.
“I’m a cosmologist. It’s a sort of a religion for intelligent atheists,” Stephen Hawking says to a woman he’s just met at a party. This apparently counts as a pickup line in James Marsh’s gauzy interpretation of Hawking’s life, The Theory of Everything, for which Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor at Sunday’s Academy Awards. I’m not personally attracted to such blatant aggrandizement of oneself and one’s field, but Hawking’s line promises, at the very least, that science and religion will get plenty of screen-time in The Theory of Everything. New York Times science writer Dennis Overbye has even argued that Hawking’s sophisticated scientific achievements get shortchanged in the biopic, which apparently “panders to religious sensibilities.”
Mr. Overbye, I hate to break it to you, but it doesn’t really matter: The Theory of Everything is not actually a movie about either science or religion. It’s about marriage. It emphasizes Stephen Hawking’s relationship with his wife Jane—who was on the receiving end of that intelligent-atheist zinger I mentioned earlier—rather than Stephen Hawking’s scientific brilliance; in so doing, the film subtly builds a different sort of narrative for the scientific hero than we’re used to consuming. Our hero is fallible, not superhuman. Instead of pristinely arriving at Truth, he struggles to piece together scientific arguments while dealing with daily life, disease, and personal flaws. We watch and learn that anything one might call “his” success has been built—perhaps ruthlessly—upon the sacrifices of others, particularly Jane’s.
Consider a scene in which Jane is driving the family home from a holiday with Stephen’s parents:
“Stephen,” she whispers. “I need help.”
Stephen’s response? “Everything is fine. We’re just a normal family.”
“We are not a normal family,” Jane says. “We are not a normal family!”
Stephen leans to the backseat and says jovially to his son, “Robert, your mother is very angry with me.”
Cut to Jane, vacuuming ferociously.
Suddenly, we are faced with a very different picture of heroic science idol Stephen Hawking. We see not Hawking, god of physics, but Stephen, oblivious to and disrespectful of his wife’s contributions to their marriage and his physical health. (In fact, many have suggested that Hawking was far more stubborn, demanding—even misogynistic—than The Theory of Everything portrays.) The movie humanizes Hawking in other ways as well. When Stephen presents his important research on Hawking radiation, it is Jane who has wheeled him there. The camera finds her face amidst the sea of male scientists in the audience—highlighting the film’s suggestion that it was Jane, ultimately, who made Stephen’s trajectory toward greatness possible.
We watch and learn that anything one might call Hawking’s success has been built—perhaps ruthlessly—upon the sacrifices of others, particularly his wife Jane’s.
To say that The Theory of Everything complicates the way we should understand scientific geniuses, however, does not mean that the movie refrains from all tired tropes about science and religion, or about gender. Even the preceding example—the radiation presentation—exudes the heavy scent of woman-as-muse-and-nothing-more. Then, of course, there’s the whole idea of the good, godly woman hurt by her scientist husband’s atheism.
I’ll call this the Emma-and-Charles stereotype, referring to the Darwins’ many letters to each other describing their divergent views on faith. Emma is strictly faithful, Charles has his doubts. Jane Hawking is portrayed just as Emma Darwin often is: faithful merely because she is (and probably because she is a woman). Jane wears a cross necklace and never gets to articulate the reasons for her religious beliefs. In one particularly biting scene, actress Felicity Jones’ fiery character explains how, as a result of Stephen’s latest research (which she is clearly intelligent enough to understand), “God is back on the endangered species list.” “And physics is back in business,” goads Stephen. “Yes,” says Jane—with an understated venom and all the weight of her own neglected ambition and intellectual merit—“physics is back in business.”
The problem with said Emma-and-Charles stereotype is, first, that it leads to sexist conclusions: women are irrational and unintelligent for believing blindly in God even in the face of their magnificent husbands’ truths. But, secondly, such a stereotype cheapens any real discourse between science and religion that might have occurred. Towards the end of The Theory of Everything, Jane and Stephen seem to have reached a moment of religious reconciliation; in the manuscript for Stephen’s newest book, Jane discovers the words, “Who are we? Why are we here? If we ever learn this, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason, for then we would know the mind of God.” There is pure joy on her face as she approaches Stephen, asking him if he means to really acknowledge God—and he does. He even cuts off his potential rebuttal when she asks, “Are you actually going to let me have this moment?” However, the reconciliation of husband and wife, science and religion, proves farcical in the next moments; Stephen has offered Jane a mention of God merely to soften the blow that he’s leaving her for the hot nurse.
There are always going to be pitfalls in movies about heroes, no matter how much filmmakers attempt to soften their portrayals of superhuman men at the center (and they are almost always men). Beyond the Emma-and-Charles stereotype, The Theory of Everything gets some of its facts wrong; though the movie is a work of fiction, a viewer unfamiliar with Stephen Hawking will likely take the story as something akin to truth. What’s more, in order to explain scientific concepts to a lay audience, director Marsh relies heavily on visual metaphor (particularly of the edible variety). Cream swirling in coffee represents a black hole; beer foam and chips on a pub table map out Hawking radiation and the Big Bang; a potato and a pea step in for quantum mechanics and general relativity. Such a tactic reinforces the old, misleading narrative that scientific concepts derive from fluke inspiration and reflect simple, lovely truths about quotidian life.
This tale of a man seeking the origins of time is just humanizing enough to complicate our image of Stephen Hawking as a noble scientific hero, but it is not enough to contradict such an idea completely.
Remember Mr. Overbye of The New York Times? He has a nice word to describe The Theory of Everything’s deepest flaw: anachronism. In the pretty, delicately-lit, softly-focused world of the movie, too much narcissism or sexism or dated scientific terminology would lessen our investment in the Hawking marriage, which is posited as a major source of the Hawking genius. We’d be distracted, we would not feel the same tragic misery we feel when that marriage finally crumbles—in one of the most moving and painful scenes I’ve seen onscreen—so we’re given a fairy tale instead. This tale of a man seeking the origins of time is just humanizing enough to complicate our image of Stephen Hawking as a noble scientific hero, but it is not enough to contradict such an idea completely.
Still, the movie is worth watching. And I say that not only because it begins with possibly the most romantic roughly 25 minutes known to film (at least in my book: Cambridge, 1960s, fireworks, poetry recitations, a discussion of the birth and death of stars, flirting in RP, a kiss on a bridge under lanterns). On that bridge, Jane quotes the Bible to Stephen: “In the beginning was the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Jane, we are perhaps meant to believe, will give form to Stephen. And The Theory of Everything, at very least, is the rare film to shine light on—give form to—the dark, ordinary, and ultimately human facets of creating science.
Julia F.P. Ostmann is contributor to Cosmologics. She is a junior at Harvard College and a concentrator in the Department of the History of Science.
Image from Flickr via Terry Hancock.