THE media and public fascination with Stephen Hawking has, it seems to me, always been driven by a mixture of infantilising sentimentalism and morbid curiosity.
His work is not even dimly understood by most people outside the scientific world - the record shows how many copies of A Brief History of Time have been sold, not read - so we cheer from the metaphorical sidelines not for what he has done but because he did it while in the savage grip of motor neurone disease.
Since everyone knows the disease has dimmed his intellectual faculties not a bit, such admiration seems faintly condescending. So it is little wonder that scientists have bristled at the way Hawking's work is treated in this film: the anachronistic use of the term "black holes"; the idea that one of his biggest breakthroughs was sparked by staring into a coal fire.
The implication of his thinking - that three-dimensional space may be an illusion - doesn't get a look-in, but his attitude to whether we can disprove the need for God becomes a running gag.
All this is forgivable, of course: it's a movie, after all, and people don't go to the movies to grapple with quantum theory. But there's a promise in its title that is not so much broken as entirely ignored. The film, written by UK-based New Zealander Anthony McCarten, and based on the memoir of Hawking's first wife, is a domestic romance, really, a brief history of their time together, not a portrait of the scientist.
Seen in that light it's very competent, though it seldom rises above the routine, and it's too long - it flags badly in the third quarter. McCarten and director Marsh (the latter famed for the documentary Man on Wire) play it straight, though some nonsensical decisions sustain dramatic contrivances: years after the newly diagnosed Cambridge student deserts his bunk for a bed on the floor, he has a first-floor bedroom, so we can watch him drag himself up the stairs.
Attention has rightly focused on Redmayne's extraordinary work as the steadily shrivelling Hawking, and the sense of mischief that he conjures using only his eyes is something to behold. But Jones is terrific as Jane, whose story the film is, really; she grows into the role, becoming deeper and more rounded.
It's impossible not to be deeply moved by her unswerving devotion to Hawking (scientist and man), and the film dramatises with heartbreaking conviction the two episodes in which they develop feelings for others. But romance-against-the-odds movies are two a penny; Stephen Hawking is a one-off. In reducing this astonishing story to something ordinary, this quite good film misses ... well, almost everything.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, David Thewlis
Director: James Marsh
Running time: 123 mins
Verdict: A routine, sometimes touching, domestic romance
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