I watch a reasonable amount of movies, particularly at this time of year as the film industry ramps up for awards season and those on general release aren’t summer blockbuster dross. I wouldn’t call myself a snob, but I do like to have my thoughts and opinions challenged occasionally. I enjoy fluffy, romantic, funny or child-friendly films too, but as with my reading habits, I’m drawn to true stories and beautifully-made movies – I subscribe to the “CGI is not a verb” theory, and dislike sci-fi or fantasy “the world is being eaten from the inside by aliens, so we have to save it by turning humans into robots” concepts.
One of the movies which is getting enormous awards buzz is The Theory of Everything – starring Eddie Redmayne as Professor Stephen Hawking, it tells the story of the famous scientist’s first marriage, based on a book by his ex-wife. Redmayne has received a lot of press regarding his preparation for the role: Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS – brought to the fore last summer thanks to the ice bucket challenge which did the rounds on social media) whilst studying for his PhD, and told he would only live for another two years. Fifty years later, he’s severely disabled, but alive and working. Redmayne’s performance covers Hawking’s life from the 1960s until roughly the mid-1980s, a period during which Hawking became wheelchair-bound and unable to speak due to the necessity of a tracheotomy. It must be demanding enough trying to get into another human being’s thoughts in able to accurately portray them in a biopic, without having to completely alter your own movement and physicality.
I’ve now seen this movie twice, and I’m glad I went for a re-watch. I was impressed the first time, but I wasn’t prepared for my reaction to the second viewing. It reminded me of my experience watching The Iron Lady (Meryl Streep’s turn as Margaret Thatcher) a few years ago, which made me want to become Prime Minister and never suffer a chronic and degenerative medical condition, particularly one which has an impact upon brain function.
Prior to watching …Everything, I thought I knew where I stood on end of life decisions, and that I was ready to put my wishes into a Living Will. Now, I’m not so sure. It was an issue I regarded as being black and white: choose to save the person in question, and you do so with the knowledge that they may not be the same, your lives could be very difficult and it could be a tough road to walk down; choose to end treatment, and they will die, you must learn to live without them, but their suffering is over. I am in no way religious – my standpoint is not affected by a moral choice between science and religion, but learning the story of the Hawkings did make me reconsider my position. I’m still not sure where I’ve ended up.
I always thought – and this is from someone who considers themselves to be really quite lazy – that it would be terrible to be a conscious mind in an increasingly-wasted body; to be the adult who relies on the skill, patience, generosity and commitment of others in order to get through ordinarily simple tasks like washing and dressing. I also believed that it wouldn’t be nice to be in the position of watching someone you love slip away mentally – that the person you knew slowly disappeared thanks to their brain being taken over by forces beyond the control of medical science, and that the body is still willing, the brain still semi-dangerous and the person a mere husk of their former self. Knowing those thought processes, it should be simple to make the leap and say “yes, it’s over”.
Jane Hawking saved her husband’s life, and they both had to then learn to live with her decision, adapt their way of being and continue. Despite being increasingly disabled, Hawking has dedicated his life to his passion, seeking an answer to the question he posed before he knew he had ALS. To disappear into a dark place – and stay there – would be easy. To keep moving forward and not resent your situation (particularly if you have a choice: for Hawking, to make his wishes clear and slip away at the next opportunity; for Jane, to leave the marriage) must require a great deal of strength.
Essentially, there shouldn’t be any hope in some situations; there is an easier option and a harder option. But hope exists, it’s just a question of clinging to it and learning how to make the most of it. Things may not happen in the way you had anticipated, but isn’t it better to stick it out and see if you can still get there, rather than give up because things have become difficult?
Whether this movie makes you think as I have or not, you should go and see it. Some people I know have complained that they don’t wish to see it as Hawking is reputedly not all that nice of a person (I faced similar opposition from those of a certain age when I raved about The Iron Lady), but there are other merits here: it’s beautifully-shot, Redmayne has proven himself a brilliantly transformative actor, the supporting cast are great, and there are some genuinely funny moments. The word in the entertainment press is that Redmayne will likely be robbed at the Oscars, and I unfortunately agree. He’s taken home a Golden Globe already, and I daresay he’ll also win a BAFTA for it, both of which he can be proud of. And I’ll continue to get excited about the biopics which make me think.