This was one of the holiday movies that I didn’t bother with back when it came out around Thanksgiving. It is a bio-pic of celebrity astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane Wilde. I was vaguely familiar with the Stephen Hawking story. I knew he was an atheist, and that he was diagnosed with ALS, a motor-neuron wasting disease, at the age of 21 back in 1963. I knew he wrote a wildly popular book A Brief History of Time. I knew his wife married him knowing the diagnosis and aware that he might only live a few years. The movie got great reviews but I figured it would be just some sort of sad love story. I wasn’t up for that. The holidays can be emotionally provoking enough without another sad love story.
However, a few weeks ago I picked up an exceedingly interesting and challenging book The Physics of Christianity by Frank Tipler. Dr. Tipler is a mathematical physicist with impeccable credentials—degrees from MIT and the University of Maryland and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Texas where one of his mentors was Dennis Sciama who was also Hawking’s mentor at Oxford and Cambridge. Dr. Tipler has been on the faculty at Tulane since 1987. Perusing his book got me interested in seeing the movie.
The “theory of everything” is basically the pursuit of finding equations that will meld classic Newtonian laws with the quantum mechanic theories of the mid-20th Century. Einstein was a Newtonian guy; Max Planck, Erwin Schrodinger and many others are quantum theorists. In essence, all the major players in this controversy appear to be right but their mathematical descriptions of reality seem quite irreconcilable.
Tipler tries to dumb down the science and math for a pop audience. However, the math especially is still beyond me. But what I get out of the classical vs. quantum controversy is that it all seems to depend on one’s point of view. It sort of reminded me of Christian theologians who lean either toward the law or toward grace (God’s love). It’s all God’s truth at some level but the consequences of what camp one parks in are enormous.
Anyway, this film is beautifully directed by James Marsh and brilliantly acted. Watching Eddie Redmanyne transform from a witty, more or less normal but awkward person into a wheelchair bound homunculus in two decades is amazing. It is no wonder that he was nominated for an Oscar. Felicity Jones as his wife, Jane Wilde, also gives a compelling performance. She is a Brit TV actress who is a relative newcomer to the big screen. The tension generated in Hawking and Wilde’s differing world-views is handled well.
Wilde is brilliant in her own right. She eventually achieves a PhD in Romance Languages. But Wilde is also a committed Christian. She spends over two decades tenderly taking care of a man who otherwise might have died. Her devotion to him is exemplary and one wonders how much of it was motivated by her faith. However, the stress on her begins to wear her down. In an unexpectedly humorous scene, her mother, played by Emily Watson, decides to have a heart to heart talk with her. She stares at her intently and says, “Jane. . .(long pause). . .I think you should join the church choir.” Wilde, after another pregnant pause, says, “Mother, I think that’s the most English thing I’ve ever heard.”
Well, as it turns out, the director of the church choir happens to be a handsome young widower (played by Charlie Cox). He is also an organist and keyboard teacher. He starts giving one of their children piano lessons. He also helps with the care of the increasingly helpless Hawking. Eventually, he becomes part of the family. For many years his relationship with Wilde is platonic. . . but, you get the picture.
Eventually, Hawking needs skilled around-the-clock nursing care. And guess what? He and one of his nurses develop a thing for each other. At one point Hawking says something to the effect that it’s nice to find someone you really love (or really loves you). That seems like an unnecessarily cruel remark—but Hawking is portrayed as far more brilliant than he is kind. He and Jane get a divorce and he’s married to his caretaker/nurse for a decade before they divorce. He and Jane remain good friends to this day and are supportive of each other.
Anyway, I find a great irony in this movie’s title. Are you a Newtonian-guy or are you a Quantum-guy? And wouldn’t it be nice to have a theory of everything that explained everything about our Universe—and thus everything ecclesiastical as well. But I think God deliberately gave us a Creation that we could only dimly comprehend. So, are you a law-guy or are you a grace-guy? I’m not for infidelity, but life is complicated. People are complex. Is this a story about the consequences of disobedience, or is this a story about love and God’s grace in giving us more suitable partners? Are there any easy answers?