“The Theory of Everything,” which examines the relationship between Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his first wife Jane (Felicity Jones), could have been a relatively conventional story about a great man that allocates a little credit on the side to the little woman who helped him along the way. But instead, “The Theory of Everything” is more balanced, looking at the strain that Hawking’s ALS caused in their marriage.
My friend, the critic Scott Tobias, found the movie to be rather sentimental, and wishes it had focused more on Hawking’s intellectual project. But there is a brutal, draining idea at the heart of it.
When Stephen is first diagnosed, Jane insists that they make the most of what are supposed to be the two remaining years of his life by getting married and having children. But what happens when Stephen lives far beyond his prognosis, and the need for his care forces Jane to set aside the personal and professional ambitions she thought would still be available to her? What happens when an unpaid caregiver finds out that her commitment has its limits, and the person for whom she is caring finds someone else’s help easier to accept?
These are difficult questions to ask, and “The Theory of Everything” poses them with sensitivity and respect for both Stephen and Jane’s positions and decisions.
Similar conflicts come up in festival breakout “Still Alice,” in which Julianne Moore plays a linguist who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Her husband, Dr. John Howland (Alec Baldwin) is tender and loving towards her, but also unwilling to make caring for Alice his primary focus, particularly when he receives an unprecedented job offer. Watching Alice’s diminishing capacity to wrangle language and recall memories and John’s commitment to continue living his life open up a gap between them is quiet, sad, and seemingly inevitable.
In two films, the demands of caregiving force middle-aged male characters to become better, more open people. In the otherwise messy “The Judge,” Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) returns home for his mother’s funeral and is forced to reckon with his estranged father, Judge Joseph Palmer’s (Robert Duvall) failing health. Scenes of Hank physically caring for Joseph are out of keeping with the wildly uneven tone of the movie, but they suggest what a more perceptive and interesting version of “The Judge” might have looked like.
Less successful is “Black and White,” in which we are supposed to believe that Eliot Anderson (Kevin Costner), an alcoholic lawyer, is the person best suited to raise his biracial granddaughter (he is initially befuddled by her hair), even though he has not exactly been involved in parenting the little girl before his wife’s death. The movie is convinced that Eliot’s desire to care for his granddaughter is all he needs to be a good parent, while her other grandmother’s (Octavia Spencer) desire to be involved in the child’s life apparently springs from some suspicious and parochial racial motivation, even though she has a much more successful track record of child rearing. Among its other problems, “Black and White” operates by a tired dynamic where women are never good enough when they shoulder the burdens that have been thrust upon them, while men get credit for expressing good intentions.
If I have made these movies sound weighted towards male experiences with caregiving and towards unpaid caregiving work, it is because they are. Fortunately, we have “Cake” to make up for some of the imbalance. In this film, which will be released next year, Jennifer Aniston plays Claire, a woman who suffers from chronic pain after a dreadful accident that shattered her body as well as her family. Because she has no other meaningful relationships left, her housekeeper Silvana (a marvelous Adriana Barraza) has slipped into the role of caregiver, making sure Claire eats, driving her to physical therapy and, less-constructively, helping her score the pain pills to which Claire has become addicted.
“Cake” is honest about the fact that Claire’s relationship with Silvana has an element of exploitation. Silvana’s daughter complains that Claire is not paying Silvana enough for either the hours she works or the level of emotional support Silvana provides to her. But Silvana is not required to be a put-upon saint who exists just to illustrate the callousness of her employer or the exploitation that can happen in caregiver-client relationships. She gets fed up with Claire’s self-indulgence, and tells her so in one of the movie’s wonderful, spiky scenes.
When a new friend remarks that Silvana cares for Claire, Claire tells him coldly, “I pay her to care about me. It’s not my fault she gets sentimental.” Many of these movies make exactly that point: caregiving is real work. The sentimentality that so often accompanies the job is what makes it so difficult, and so valuable.