A Bravura Performance

The actor Eddoe Redmayne with the great mathematician Stephen Hawking who he so eloquently portrays on film.

The actor Eddie Redmayne with the great mathematician Stephen Hawking who he so eloquently portrays on film.

I sometimes think that I don’t go the cinema as often as I should. I have to admit that part of this is a rather personal curmudgeonly streak, which finds the perpetual rustling of sweet wrappers, and the sickly smell of popcorn rather irritating in most cinema environments. As a regular theatre goer, I have been somewhat spoiled by audiences that tend to be respectful and appreciative of the performers on stage, and possibly more aware of their fellow audience members. The current popularity of film in this country is an indication that I am probably alone in my exasperation, and I suspect that if I want to see the latest offerings on the silver screen, I will simply have to subdue my irritation and go along with the modern cinema experience.

On Saturday evening Sara and I visited our local cinema to see a quite remarkable performance by the actor Eddie Redmayne as he depicted the life of Professor Stephen Hawking in the film The Theory of Everything. Playing opposite the actress Felicity Jones who was also impressive in the role of Hawking’s first wife Jane, Eddie Redmayne played the role of the eminent mathematician and scientist through his Cambridge University days, and his subsequent achievements, as he developed his theories around time and assumed his role as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Both the acting and the cinematography were a real tour de force.

Understandably, the film was little concerned with the complex theories and mathematical principles that have  characterised Professor Hawking’s work, but dealt in large with his physical deterioration as a result of motor neurone disease, and the impact that this had upon his family life and relationships. At times I found the film almost too painful to watch, as for example in a scene where Hawking tries desperately to scale a set of stairs, a task that clearly demands all of his physical strength and mental determination. But in general, the film is, in that rather clichéd expression, “life affirming” in telling the tale of a remarkable and determined man who overcomes enormous challenges to achieve great things.

As is inevitably the case after watching such a powerful and moving piece of art, it takes some time to fully reflect on what has been seen. However, a number of details from the film reminded me of many of the initiatives that I witness on a regular basis from teachers in schools. The very physical nature of the acting of Eddie Redmayne and his immense skill in representing a man whose body changes significantly over the course of time was hugely impressive. But equally informative and represented in a subtle and unobtrusive manner in the film was the response of Felicity Jones in the role of his wife. The adjustments that she made to her attention and care of her husband, reminded me of the actions of so many teachers and parents with whom I have worked over the years. The commitment to an individual who is so highly dependent, and the selfless changes in life style made by a caring adult, designed to provide maximum support, was brilliantly depicted in this film, and true to so many situations that I have seen in other families.

Equally moving was the respect which was shown to Stephen Hawking by those closest to him, including his academic  colleagues. These people who know him well can see beyond his disability in order to appreciate his unique individuality, irreverent sense of humour and outstanding intellect. This contrasts strongly in the film with the attitudes of some members of the audience at a concert in Bordeaux attended by Hawking, who show their apparent  distaste for his presence in the theatre. Their reactions, based solely upon ignorance and prejudice showed why many disabled people still find themselves uncomfortable in such a public forum.

A further potential point of interest to teachers watching this film, relates to the efforts made to enable Stephen Hawking to communicate after he loses his voice. The empathetic approach adopted by a speech therapist, played by Maxine Peake, who initially introduces a simple communication board to her charge, will be familiar to many teachers. The eventual provision of a voice synthesiser shows the liberating effect of matching appropriate resources to the learner. This interface between the professionalism of the teacher, the respect for the individuality of the learner and the determination of that individual to overcome his own learning difficulties, gives an excellent portrayal of the power of a considered approach to teaching.

I am sure that this film will encourage many who see it to reflect not only upon the devastating impact of a progressive disability, but also upon the importance of maintaining high expectations of individuals in this situation. I hope that it may also encourage more people to see how important it is to enable learners, who happen to have a disability, to take some control of their own lives whilst being offered support on their terms.

Viewing this film was a wholly positive experience, so much so that I can even forgive the woman behind me who must have unwrapped a kilo of sweets during its showing!