The Theory of Everything and the use of visual attention… (Some Spoilers)

Outdoor Festival

Yesterday my University put on an Outdoor Film Festival, screening The Theory of Everything followed by Guardians of the Galaxy. Sat in a chair, holding a cherry cider surrounded by a large crowd of fellow students, with music blaring from speakers, and relatively nice weather it was looking to be a good night and the excitement of the event was beginning to rise. Then the music stopped, and a cheer was heard throughout the garden as The Theory of Everything began playing… that’s when the mood unsurprisingly changed very quickly. For anyone who knows the life of Steven Hawking, or has watched the film, or for that matter understands how cinematic biopics generally work, it is no surprise to find out that a lot of the film was very sad and many of the fixated eyes around were red.

The film itself is truly brilliant, but there was one particular element of the film that surprised me, and maybe it shouldn’t have, because in the end it made perfect sense. The ordering and editing of shots has long been an important part of conveying the correct narrative within a film, and in The Theory of Everything it conveyed one that I don’t think many of us were expecting. Instead of merely focusing on Stephen Hawking, his initial physical deterioration and further strength and ability to defy all expectations both scientifically and medically, they decided to focus on the relationship between Jane (his first wife) and Stephen… and then Jane’s eventual new husband Jonathan. Looking at it written down this focus makes it seems like a commercially driven romance about a love triangle, that just so happens to include Stephen Hawking… but this is far from the truth.

Naturally, and rightly so the film begins to show how Jane and Stephen met, and presents us with a very vivid understanding of how Professor Hawking’s genius presented itself and how different he was to those around him. It then proceeds to show his transition into disability; perhaps disability is the wrong word to use but we’ll come back to that later. Once his genius and debilitating condition had been established, the story, while still obviously showing the effects of the condition, began to focus on Jane and how her existence in Stephen Hawking’s life affected him and thus our understanding of space and time. So much so that when it came to the ending there was more attention given to Jane and Jonathan’s relationship, than to the blossoming romance that was Stephen and Elaine (Mason – his nurse) or to the rest of Stephens life. Considering the film was based around Jane’s book this may be part of the reason why, or Stephen Hawking himself could have suggested it, or plain and simply it could have been a sole creative decision from the director; either way it works. The film does not ‘technically’ end on a happy note, in fact it’s possibly one of the saddest moments of the entire film, and there is still a lot of mystery into a large part of Hawkings’ life but in truth the film wasn’t a full biopic. Yes, it was about Stephen Hawking, but this wasn’t the central narrative; what seemed to me to be of primary importance to the film was the eponymous ‘Theory of Everything’. The title was probably quite a huge hint, but us as an audience immediately jump to conclusions and presume it’s all about him.

It seemed by the end of it that they were trying to give us a basic overview of Stephen Hawkings life, and make us understand him more and the struggles he’s been through, but also consider the struggles that Jane went through, many of us watching the film took a disliking to her because she fell in love with another man… but why? The way films work is normally if there isn’t already one there, the audience will assign their own ‘hero’ character and if anyone does anything to hurt their character they take an instant disliking to them. So, when it seemed she was falling in love with another man many of us found it hard to take pity on her, but although it is not the most dignified nor sensitive thing to do, it is undeniable that Jane’s presence in Hawking’s life led to many great discoveries that we know of now. Jane gave him confidence, she gave him hope, she stopped the doctors cutting his life support, but in the end the love began to fade and she was more a very fond nurse than a wife.

Throughout the film there were small things, such as Hawking being trapped in his jumper that led to him realising that black holes were in fact just ‘closed holes’, that continually fed little hints to us about the ending, and many of these ‘small things’ came as a result of Jane’s help, or Jane’s existence. So the ending, and the appropriate reversing of everything that happened in the film, plus the confusingly strong attention on Jane and her growing affair were all sensible decisions. The film presented us with more than just context behind Stephen Hawkings context; it forced us to appreciate the world we live in, to appreciate the small wonders of life, and to understand that small things, and the people around you are the ones that truly contribute to the greatest achievements. Of course this doesn’t discredit Hawkings obvious intelligence, and his own strength, but it seems to me that the film wanted to show that despite the condition he is in, there was an optimism about the fact it resulted in some of his best work.

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