I was very ready not to like The Theory of Everything. For all the world it looked like a very polite biopic designed to impress Oscar voters and the Best Exotic/King’s Speech crowd. This turned out to be correct. However, it’s also a seriously impressive piece of work.
The appeal of a story about a genius battling a horrifying disease is evident. Nonetheless, there is temptation with films about interesting and multifaceted lives for the film to take an interest in every facet. Witness for example the meandering and unfocused Iron Lady. The Theory, however, finds a clear way through Hawking’s life by focusing on his relationship with his first wife Jane Wilde. Their shared affection and pain provide safe base from which we can explore Hawking’s science, his disease and his unlikely fame.
Yet ultimately it is this base that makes the Theory so fascinating. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones deliver remarkable (and Oscar nominated) performances. Redmayne has to depict not only his character but also the disease that completely alters his physicality. Even when apparently completely immobilised Redmayne can still convey precisely what Hawking is thinking and feeling. However, it’s Jones who’s most remarkable. She shows just how difficult it was for Wilde to be the great woman behind a great man. She makes her seem strong without being saintly. Between them they produce a refreshingly different kind of story about a relationship: it’s not merely about falling in love but about love in its totality from the beginning of a relationship to its end and beyond.
This intensely domestic story is an apparent contrast to the massive space opera that is Interstellar. Ideas about blackholes or space-time which in the Theory of Everything are fleetingly sketched on a blackboard or explained with peas and potatoes are in Interstellar depicted in massive scale and detail. Yet pretty much as soon as I came out of the Theory of Everything, I’d bracketed the two films together. This was partly a matter of the role cosmology play in both. In fact Interstellar’s science advisor and executive producer Kip Thorne appears as a character in the Theory. He’s a collaborator and rival of Hawking’s and at one stage wins a bet with Hawking and receives a year’s subscription to penthouse as a prize!
More important, however, is the thematic connection. Both films are fundamentally about the determination to survive and how love can help us to find it. The quote from Dylan Thomas that Instellar uses extensively: “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light” feels like a sentiment Hawking would probably have endorsed.
For all their similarities and the extent to which I enjoyed both films, I felt the Theory is the more successful film. Interstellar has plenty of fine performances but none as majestic Redmayne and Jones’. There are also points where Interstellar falls victim to the inability of a human brain that evolved in a Newtonian world to cope with the reality of relativity: at points where the drama requires us to be engaged, we are kept at a distance by the instinctive parts of our brain protesting: “this isn’t how the universe works!”
Yet of course this is indeed precisely how the universe works. The proposition that time moves more slowly for objects exposed to stronger gravity appears upon initial presentation like utter. Yet this effect is sufficiently real that the calculations underlying the GPS on your phone must include a correction for the slower passage of time experienced by satellites in orbit that are therefore at a remove from the earth’s gravity.
This is a point that both films illustrate magnificently: the human capacity to imagine that which we cannot experience. The substance of Thorne and Hawking’s bet is over whether a mysterious source of X-rays known as Cygnus X-1 would turn out to be a black hole. At the point not only was their uncertainty about whether Cygnus x-1 was a black hole but no one had been able to positively identify anything as a black hole. Yet by looking at the mathematics arising from Einstein’s work, Hawking and Thorne could be reasonably sure black holes did indeed exist. Thorne apparently gave some of these equations to the special effects team working on Interstellar who used them to create the images of wormholes and blackholes seen in the film. So through the power of both science and cinema we can look upon something that exists but which may never actually be seen by human eyes. Interstellar argues that it is this ability that allows us to invent paths out of apparently futile situations, while the Theory of Everything shows how it allows a man confined to a wheel chair to reach the farthest reaches of the cosmos.