People with disabilities occupy a tricky place in cinema — when they occupy any place at all. They’re typically tropes, where their disability is the defining force of their character, rather than one element of their life and their experience (this is also often true with disease, particularly if the sick one is a woman).
The movie’s story often goes like this: Able-bodied person shows great promise at something. Accident happens, robbing person of something needed to fulfill that promise. There’s an attempt to remove the disability via some sort of cure. If it works, everyone is happy. If it doesn’t work, person “overcomes” disability to fulfill promise anyway. Triumphant music swells, tearful audience departs.
“The Theory of Everything” takes a different tack in its depiction of disability. After he’s diagnosed with ALS at a relatively young age, Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) does take some time to sulk and feel sorry for himself, which fits the How to Make a Movie About Disability script. His then-girlfriend, eventual-wife Jane (Felicity Jones) tells him to snap out of it, which is also pretty typical. Then the film shifts and stops being about A Man With a Disease and starts being about … a man.
That’s not to say the film ignores Hawking’s ALS, but it doesn’t focus on it — instead it’s presented as just one way that life sucks. And all of us get dealt that card, albeit to varying degrees. Hawking and, by extension, Jane see the difference between the “life sucks” card and the “life ends” card. Their attitude toward ALS is very much that it’s a circumstance of Hawking’s life, not the definition of it.
Because of that, “The Theory of Everything” is about everything else: their marriage, his work, their children, the other little things that make up a long life. Hawking’s disability isn’t even presented as an obstacle, but as a part of their decidedly normal lives. ALS is horrific and destructive, and the film doesn’t pretend that it isn’t. But no disease or disability ever wholly defines anyone. In “The Theory of Everything,” ALS is part — not the whole — of an extraordinary life.
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