Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"The Theory Of Everything": Disability As Oscar Bait (Yet Again)

Now In Theaters
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to go see The Theory Of Everything.  This film is about as blatant as Oscar bait gets, being billed as the uplifting story of an upper-middle class English guy overcoming a physical impairment in order to achieve greatness.  To those who don’t know, this is the Stephen Hawking biopic, so you can fill in the appropriate blanks in order to get a picture of precisely the sort of story you are in for.  Except this is worse than your standard inspiration porn, because the film has some underlying themes about disability that, while I’m sure are unintentional, transform it from what should have been a mildly inoffensive glimpse into the life of one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century into a commentary that makes Mr. Hawking’s disability his defining characteristic.

I think the problem comes from where the screenplay was adapted from.  This film was based on a biography by Hawking’s now-ex-wife Jane, and though I don’t want to blame the source material itself (having never read it), I do think it is informative of the film’s troublesome perspective.  Stephen has the most screen time for the first third of the film, establishing him as a funny and awkward man with a passion for cosmology; however, Jane takes on the role of protagonist as the film enters its second act.  After Stephen is diagnosed with motor neuron disease, Jane steps into the forefront as Stephen’s caregiver, and the film’s primary conflict becomes her struggle to keep her family together.  This feels more than a little disingenuous for being a film where the main selling-point was to catch a glimpse of the life of Stephen Hawking, as his character’s arc is little more than an obligatory progression from career landmark to milestone of physical degradation, rinse and repeat.

And therein lies the main problem with the film.  Because the primary narrative focus is on Jane’s emotional torment for most of the film, with allusions to an affair with an assisting caregiver, Stephen becomes little more than an obstacle keeping Jane from finding happiness.  When Stephen’s achievements are necessarily touched upon, the emphasis is not that he formulated a theory on the nature of time and space, but that he formulated a theory on the nature of time and space despite his disability.  This is only further punctuated by the fact that the film’s climactic moment is when Stephen tells Jane that it is alright to finally leave him, basically freeing her from her burden.  The film’s primary conflict is resolved when Stephen acknowledges that his disability has been holding her back.  If it isn’t readily apparent to you why that is problematic, you may need to check yourself on some of your able-bodied privilege.

And yet, I’m not quite sure how the film could have avoided this pitfall, as I’m not familiar enough (nor did the film make me familiar enough) with Mr. Hawking’s life to say in what ways his personal struggles could have been greater emphasized without couching everything in terms of “overcoming” disability.  After all, nobody is going to see the film to see Mr. Hawking crunch equations for hours on end; rather, everyone knows him as the physicist in the wheelchair with the robot voice, and it’s that shallow, surface understanding of the man that the film panders to.  There has been a lot of buzz over Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking, and though the actor certainly has the physicist’s mannerisms pretty solidly pegged, that quite aptly demonstrates that the primary praise for the film derives from an able-bodied actor’s portrayal of disability, not its portrayal of a multi-dimensional man with disability.

At the end of the day, The Theory Of Everything seems to have its heart in the right place, but stumbles over its Oscar ambitions by placing emphasis on the wrong aspects of a great man’s life.  I recognize that it would be impossible to make a film about Stephen Hawking without placing some emphasis on his disability, yet this film goes after that low-hanging fruit a bit too overzealously for my taste, making what should have been a single aspect of Mr. Hawking’s life into an attraction where we can mourn his wife’s lost opportunities.  I’d recommend passing this one up.

I’ve somehow managed to find an awards-season dud right out the gate.  Have you come across any yet?  Leave your thought in the comments below.

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