Friday, November 28, 2014

‘Theory of Everything’ choreographs the grand cosmic dance

“The Theory of Everything” (2014). Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, David Thewlis, Harry Lloyd, Charlie Cox, Christian McKay, Abigail Cruttenden, Maxine Peake. Director: James Marsh. Screenplay: Anthony McCarten. Book: Jane Hawking, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. Web site. Trailer.

They say it takes two to tango. It’s a concept that we can apply literally, metaphorically and even metaphysically. But nowhere is this notion more applicable than in the expression of the grand cosmic dance, a principle explored on multiple levels in director James Marsh’s inspiring new biopic, “The Theory of Everything.”

In 1963, cosmology student Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) seemed to have everything going his way. As a doctoral candidate at England’s storied Cambridge University, the somewhat-geeky but incredibly brilliant and deceptively charming graduate student was enrolled in one of the world’s most prestigious post-graduate programs. What’s more, before long, he met a beautiful and charming language arts student, Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), with whom he fell madly in love. And, with the support of his loving parents, Frank and Isobel (Simon McBurney, Abigail Cruttenden), his jovial friend, Brian (Harry Lloyd), and his program advisor, Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis), Stephen apparently had what he needed to succeed in pursuing his goal – devising a simple, eloquent explanation for the existence of the Universe, in essence, a theory of everything.

But no sooner had Hawking embarked on this journey when he was blindsided by a major setback: He was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease), a condition that would cause his muscle function to deteriorate while leaving his mind and brain intact. Faced with the prospect of being irretrievably trapped inside his own body and a projected life-span of only two years, Hawking lapsed into a deep depression. However, Stephen’s peers would have none of that attitude. And, before long, neither would he. He resolved to carry on with as “normal” a life as possible, a feat at which he succeeded beyond measure.

In his personal life, Stephen married Jane, despite their knowledge of what they would be up against. Meanwhile, in his collegiate life, Hawking would become inspired by the theories of physicist Roger Penrose (Christian McKay), which would subsequently lead him to the topic for his doctoral thesis, a paper that earned him his degree in 1966. In the ensuing years, the Hawkings would become the parents of three children, and Stephen would write a number of books, including the immensely successful best seller, A Brief History of Time (1988).

Despite these triumphs, however, life was not without its challenges. As Stephen’s health deteriorated, he eventually developed pneumonia, necessitating a tracheotomy that left him unable to speak on his own. Stephen and Jane also began experiencing marital difficulties as years of increasingly stressful living conditions piled up on them.

But the Hawkings also managed to come up with solutions to these challenges. To give him the ability to “speak,” Stephen was fitted with a special keyboard that translated his words into sound. And, on the home front, even though Stephen and Jane were unable to resolve their marital issues, they divorced and each found new partners; Stephen married his caregiver, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), while Jane was wed to longtime friend Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox). But, through their many travails, Stephen and Jane managed to remain friends. And, as for that two-year life-span prognosis, Hawking triumphantly beat it – by 50 years.

So how do individuals like Stephen and Jane beat such staggering odds so convincingly? As in any other conscious creation scenario, it all comes down to our beliefs. Given the Hawkings’ commitment to their convictions, they were able to successfully achieve seemingly implausible accomplishments, despite what the conventional wisdom and others had to say. Their noteworthy personal and professional achievements clearly illustrate the tremendous power inherent in our beliefs, conceptions that can indeed make the virtually unattainable entirely possible.

But what specifically makes our beliefs work so effectively under such trying circumstances? Two qualities come to mind: (1) leaving ourselves open to a range of myriad possibilities, no matter how unlikely some of them may seem, and (2) having an unshakable faith in the eventual fulfillment of those prospects, regardless of how heavily the deck may seem stacked against them. Based on how Stephen and Jane have lived their lives, these qualities have been undeniably present in their beliefs, even if they haven’t always been conscious of them, and those attributes have played a huge part in the realization of the Hawkings’ goals.

Moreover, Stephen and Jane have collectively made full use of the underlying components that drive the assimilation of our beliefs, namely, our intellect and intuition. Interestingly, in many ways, they each embody these traits as well, with Stephen representing the intellect and Jane epitomizing the intuition. Stephen’s profound scientific insights into matters of cosmology and physics have led to his many brilliant theories. By contrast, Jane’s spiritual devotion and love of all things expressive have resulted in her accomplishments as a writer and educator. Together, the synergy of their relationship inspired each of them to help one another in continually pushing the boundaries of their respective capabilities. With elements like this in place, their relationship thus symbolizes the grand cosmic dance that perpetually takes place between the intellect and the intuition in the formation of our beliefs and, subsequently, in the creation of our reality. And, given the dance that Stephen and Jane have engaged in over the years, they’ve jointly choreographed quite an astounding routine, one that’s beautiful, inspiring and enlightening in so many ways.

By engaging in this dance, Stephen and Jane each made it possible to show the other where they excel and where the other is in need of remedial enlightenment. For example, Jane, with her devout orientation, helps to illuminate the intellectual Stephen on the ways of spirit, an issue about which he often vacillated, depending on where the existence (or absence) of a God might fit into his equations for understanding the nature of reality. Stephen, meanwhile, used his knowledge of science to provide a tangible dimension to Jane’s spiritual musings, helping her understand the mechanics of what make her ethereal principles work. And, in their own way, they both came to appreciate the wisdom of Albert Einstein’s contention that “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”

All that aside, one still can’t help but wonder why Stephen and Jane created these trying circumstances in the first place. Undoubtedly there were life lessons involved, and these particular conditions may have been just what was called for as part of their ultimate unfolding, results that may not have been realized under other circumstances. For example, would Stephen have been able to come up with his brilliant insights if he hadn’t been confined to a wheelchair? Indeed, would he have achieved the same results if he had created a more customary lifestyle for himself, one in which had to contend with all the typical responsibilities of a traditional husband and father? Having imposed such conditions upon himself may have been just what he needed to concentrate the bulk of his attention on his work. And yet, despite the creation of these extraordinary circumstances, he was still able to enjoy some of life’s more conventional experiences (like becoming a parent), even if he didn’t realize them in quite the same way as most of us would.

By facing both life’s joys and sorrows, Stephen and Jane also afford themselves the opportunity to experience the full spectrum of what existence has to offer. This, too, is another permutation of the grand cosmic dance, showing the protagonists both sides of life, which makes it possible for them to more fully appreciate the qualities that characterize each. This, in turn, enables them to experience life’s richness and to dance their own tune – and in their own remarkable way.

“The Theory of Everything” thoroughly inspires from start to finish, eloquently showing us what’s possible when we employ the power of our beliefs to create masterpieces of existence. The overall tone is uplifting and engaging, if a bit overly earnest and borderline schmaltzy at times. Nevertheless, this is easily overlooked in light of the picture’s overarching message and outlook.

Perhaps the film’s most notable attribute, though, is its outstanding performance by Redmayne, whose incredible portrayal makes him a very strong contender for best lead actor in this year’s awards competitions. The role’s physical demands alone are astounding, yet Redmayne consistently rises to the occasion in his convincing portrayal of the enigmatic protagonist. Credit Jones as well with a fine performance as the film’s tireless heroine, one who takes on a heavy burden in the search to find herself.

When we go out steppin’ in this thing we call life, we have a wide range of dance moves to choose from. No matter what we select, though, we’d serve ourselves well by making choices that employ a wide range of steps. Doing so will certainly make the routine enjoyable for us as participants and for all who watch from the sidelines. But then that’s what happens when we make use of everything the grand cosmic dance allows.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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