James Marsh’s movie doesn’t take up Jane’s revelations of the severe difficulties of being married to Hawking, whose intellectual progress ran parallel to severe physical deterioration. Jane’s engaging and often moving memoir mentions patronising and unsupportive in-laws, fears over her loss of identity and individuality, her frustrating inability to pursue her professional goals, and Stephen’s obduracy in refusing to seek outside professional help. Jane has various names for herself in her book, including “physics widow”. Her profound respect for her ex-husband doesn’t prevent her from sharing her disappointment at not being publically acknowledged for her efforts and her anger at his refusal to seek outside professional help.
“This attitude, along with his refusal to mention the illness, was one of the props which underpinned his courage," she writes. "I well understood that one he admitted the gravity of his condition his courage might fail him… How I wished he, for his part, could understand that with just a little help to relieve me of some of the severe grinding physical strain which was stifling my true optimistic self might contribute to an improvement in our relationship.”
The fault in their stars
To Jane’s troubled voice, the movie adds another. It starts on a note of immense promise. Looks fly between a young Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones) during a college ball, but their shared vision of a happy future blurs soon after. Diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness, Stephen momentarily crumbles, but, with Jane’s assurances, picks himself up and forges ahead, never to look back.
The elegance on display in this awards favourite, including Redmayne’s outstanding performance, smart writing and handsome cinematography, leaves no room for messiness. Marsh doesn’t excavate the psychological damage or the mental atrophy induced by years of living with disability. The 123-minute movie is a smooth, attractive, absorbing and often moving examination of conjugal matters, but it’s also conventional and respectful and misses out on capturing the essence of what made Stephen and Jane endure their respective conditions. The memoir was about Jane’s journey, while the movie is about their collaboration – a first-person account that by becoming a two-hander loses the opportunity to examine either character with depth or complexity.
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