For the month of June, we asked all of our writers to include a video in their post.
For a film about a renowned cosmologist, The Theory of Everything is careful not to lean too heavily on the science. This is to its credit. Released in 2014, The Theory offers one perspective on the life of Stephen Hawking and takes as its through-line not the man’s work on black holes, nor his inquiries into the universe’s beginnings, nor even his search for the “theory of everything” (that Holy Grail of physics, which reconciles general relativity and quantum field theory). Instead it focuses on his relationship with Jane Wilde. Starting shortly before the onset of the ALS that would consign Stephen to a wheelchair and speech synthesizer, the film follows Stephen as he and Jane fall in love, as their marriage disintegrates, and as the two move finally into a space like reconciliation.
I would call the movie of a love story if I didn’t worry about all the rom-com baggage that “love story” usually entails. As it is, The Theory of Everything stays true to its biopic roots: it holds its audience with gentle, thoughtful hands and then wrings, wrings, wrings it dry like a sodden, emotional rag.
Having undergone this wringing myself, I can thoroughly recommend the experience.
A good illustration of the film’s capacity to deliver an affective punch to the gut appears in the clip below. It occurs shortly after Stephen, a graduate student at Cambridge, receives his fateful diagnosis and is told that he has just two years to live. In the face of his looming death, he shuts down, and Jane attempts to draw him back out.
If a game is like a conversation in that both depend on a spirit of give-and-take, Stephen’s one-sided round of croquet resembles a tirade more than a chat between lovers. Propping his shaking limbs with the mallet while he stalks up and down the courtyard, Stephen stages a bitter parody of the game that Jane originally demands of him. More than that. Stephen flings that game back into her face. Confronted with a foe that not only lays waste to his body but that is in fact indistinguishable from it, he strikes out at the only other person at hand, Jane. He turns his deteriorating flesh into a spectacle—an accusatory, wordless, interminable spectacle leveled at Jane and leavened, I suspect, by that perversely delicious pleasure that comes from lashing out.
“There,” he says effectively, as he places his ball with jerking fingers. “There. Are you happy? Are you glad you dragged me out?”
To say nothing of Felicity Jones’s and Eddie Redmayne’s brilliant work here, the small tragedy of this scene earned my tears the first time I saw it.
But, then, the first time I saw it, I cried for another reason, too.
While watching this scene, my wife leaned over and asked me how old I thought Stephen was at the time of his diagnosis. I said maybe twenty-four. (He was twenty-one, Wikipedia later informed me.)
“Oh,” Jes said. She paused, and the lights from the TV flashed across her glasses. Then she said, “He’s right about my age.”
About a month into our marriage, Jes started experiencing bouts of extreme soreness in her joints. Her face broke out in a rash, and some days she said she almost cried getting up from her chair at work, or from the toilet in our little apartment. After a battery of doctor’s visits and tests, we learned that she had lupus, an autoimmune disease that had lain latent in her body for twenty-three years.
It was during this croquet scene, when Jes asked her question, that I realized she and I were receiving The Theory of Everything very differently. We identified with entirely different characters. My identification unfolded along the typical lines and occurred more or less unconsciously. Just as in Sherlock stories where the viewer quietly aligns with the spectating Watson, so too the shots in the above clip reinforce not the audience’s association with Stephen but with Jane, by returning time and again to her implied perspective. My reaction to the scene, therefore, was nothing remarkable. I merely followed the film’s instructions and obeyed what years of hermeneutical conditioning had taught me.
Jessica, meanwhile, cut against the interpretive grain. She saw in Stephen’s lurching movements, his silent fury, his body at war with itself, something that looked like her.
He’s right about my age, she said.
I remember how my throat clenched.
I don’t know whether Jes sensed her kinship with Stephen prior to the croquet game or discovered it only then. I don’t know what prompted her to speak up at this particular moment in the film. Maybe she, like me, like Jane, was simply responding to the spectacle. Or maybe something of Stephen’s resentment toward his body and even, a little, toward insistent, well-meaning, able-bodied Jane stirred memories from those early months of our marriage. I hope it isn’t the latter. But I don’t know. It could be.
I do know three things.
I know that it was hard, after this scene, to maintain a degree of separation between myself and the characters, to resist the urge to superimpose myself and Jes onto the Hawkings and to read into their story presages of what our own might be.
I know that I wondered aloud, during the film or just after, whether Stephen Hawking would be Stephen Hawking without ALS.
I know that in Scripture the resurrected body of Christ is a body that bears not scars but wounds still open from his time here on earth—Put your finger here, Thomas—and what do I make of that?
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.