This summer’s science biopics The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game have gained critical acclaim and several Oscar nominations apiece. This alleviates the frustration that this year’s Oscar nominees will inevitably gain more attention than this year’s Nobel laureates. Yet, these biopics have been widely critiqued for ‘glossing over’ the scientific feats of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) respectively.
After watching each film and reading the memoir of Stephen’s first wife Jane, on which the Theory of Everything was based, I believe that these critiques are justified but misguided.
Yes, opportunities to engage the audience with the true science of Hawking and Turing were squandered. One particular scene in The Theory of Everything reduces Stephen and Jane’s (Felicity Jones) nuanced views on faith to a few dull jokes about science vs. religion over a stodgy British dinner. According to a misleading and patronising physics lesson, Stephen’s whole-hearted belief at the time was that since he was having trouble unifying quantum theory (visually represented by peas) with general relativity (represented by potatoes), the universe had no beginning and God couldn’t exist.
A casual viewer would have walked away from The Theory of Everything having learnt the answer to just two obscure trivia questions: Stephen showed mathematically that the universe began with a singularity and he discovered something called Hawking radiation. On the positive side, most of the equations were correct and relevant – always a cheap thrill for the physicists in the audience.
But the scientific story was never meant to be what these films were judged on. They were intended to reveal that great scientists have struggled with their own egos and obstacles. They stand not only on the shoulders of previous scientific giants upon whom their work is based, but also on the shoulders of giants like Jane who support them personally. If the two films are to be critiqued on one thing, it should be on their attempt to reveal that reality.
I walked away dissatisfied with how the film stood up to the emotional impact of reading Jane’s memoir Travelling to Infinity. I was irritated by how much the film glorified Stephen instead of fully portraying the enormous sacrifices Jane made to allow his achievements. One scene even suggests that she slept with a family friend while married to Stephen.
In a letter Jane wrote in reply to my embarrassing fan mail, she emphasised that the film had many time warps and inaccuracies but portrayed the emotional reality very strongly. I feel this was a characteristically generous review, though Jane was on the mark when she said that the acting was superb.
In a letter Jane wrote in reply to my embarrassing fan mail, she emphasised that the film had many time warps and inaccuracies but portrayed the emotional reality very strongly. I feel this was a characteristically generous review, though Jane was on the mark when she said that the acting was superb. Eddie Redmayne fully deserved his Oscar for Best Actor.
By comparison The Imitation Game better involved the audience in the scientific exercise of cracking Enigma, but the portrayal of Turing and his colleagues did not ring true with me. What’s more, the film glossed over the subtle but arguably more engaging scientific feats and personal tribulations of Turing in the post-war period.
Despite their shortcomings, I would recommend seeing The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. I’m pleased that they are bringing attention to the inspiring stories of two scientists and their supporters.