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Imitating cripples and the winning of Oscars – by Penny Pepper – a disabled person

I took time out from the boredom of convalescence to watch this film. Yes, the story of everyone’s favourite cripple and his first wife Jane, the much cooed over, The Theory of Everything (TTOE).

It hasn’t been an easy blog to write, especially as Hawking appears to be lapping up publicity and endorsing Eddie Redmanyne’s performance from his appearance at the Academy Awards ceremony, to sound bites espousing ‘Well done Eddie, I’m very proud of you… at times I thought he was me.’

Thus freshly Oscar-ed Eddie Redmayne enters into the unhallowed annals of cripple impersonators – there should be a special award for this perhaps? A Spazzer? Spozcer? I’d suggest A Stephen but Hawking probably wouldn’t get the irony and it would no doubt be hijacked into something worthy.

So this year’s Stephen goes to… Eddie! In this perfect mimicry, Eddie drags his feet, curls his hands, twists his mouth a la Hawking for all he’s worth – the media is full of interviews about how he studied patients and even had speech therapy for this gold-star imitation. Oh my.

So, before judging any other aspect of this film I have to get this massive exercise in cripping-up out of the way. It sticks in the craw. I know the arguments against using a disabled actor and, you know, it’s not good enough and it is frankly shit.

It is not about urging casting directors into an equally disturbing ‘copy’ an impairment system. It’s to do with allowing disabled actors to bring their experience of what it is like to be disabled to a role about a disabled person. For fucks sake, let’s try harder, at least.

But I liked it – a bit, and more than I was expecting. And I like Eddie and think he’s an exceptional actor – he doesn’t need to cripple-mimic to show that.

I was slack in not realising the film is based on the book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Hawking, Stephen’s first wife, and this lapse meant I found the initial perspective confusing.

Presumably the screenplay fleshed out Hawking’s own pre-Jane story and the early scenes are platitudes of happy young Oxbridge boffins on bikes. Then we have the Sad Music Moments of Stephen in hospital corridors at his diagnosis; I almost expected the film to go into Black and White Land, and a droll voice to start asking for money, and a text number to donate now to save this suffering species…of physicist.

Non-disabled film-makers plainly can’t help regurgitate the idea of impairment as fearful tragedy and only tragedy. An individual might see it like that; other individuals do not, and as yet we have no balanced representations to show the experience of an acquired impairment in any other way than this. Hawking clearly hasn’t lived his life in a tragedy mode; it wasn’t the end of everything for him. I yearned for alternative metaphors – swirly black-holes, fiery supernova damn it – unconventional idioms to show the experience of the diagnosis, anything to get away from how film has handled this before (and before, and before).

While TTOE does sometimes strike me as a tame TV film, once Jane comes into the story, the film develops a tone of intimacy. I smiled at the scenes showing the couple in bed together, still making babies, still being ‘normal’. Sex and cripples, always a topic of intense curiosity, though of course the joke is this is a non-disabled actor pretending, so the taboo factor isn’t really much to go on about.

There’s many lost opportunities which would have expanded this beyond a staid biopic. Stephen gets what many disabled people would recognise is a Personal Assistant, Jonathan, albeit in an informal capacity at first. Swallowing my ire at the casting always, I enjoyed these moments when the family frolic on the beach, Jonathan enabling Stephen to get onto the sand, and to paddle his feet – something I myself have done through assistance of a PA.

It all swims along in a gentle, genteel manner, reeling out formulaic scenes of Stephen struggling, Jane Struggling, Babies Bawling, Stephen “giving in” to a wheelchair, a power chair and so on. Just occasionally we are reminded that Stephen is a genius and has disproved his own theory about black holes – yes, he is a physicist!

I must mention the TTOE pen scenes, (and I note with glee this was picked up on in a disparaging tone in a blog on The Slate). Early on Stephen-Ed does the weak hand tremble; he drops pens but he picks them up. Near the end of the film when on stage in his wheelchair, basking in applause and feted by his peers, a pretty woman drops her pen in the audience – and in his mind Stephen-Ed throws off that crippled body and strides to her side, an abled-bodied gallant, picking up the pen – before going back to the prison of his dreadful impairment (etc etc). I did swear aloud at this trite fancy – though of course, I cannot say if Stephen (or Jane) relayed this episode to the filmmakers. The film certainly holds up disability in a sickly glow of inspiration porn; a pure able-bodied perspective of a disabled person. The reviews effuse with off-putting superlatives and clichés. “Defy… impossible odds”, “earnest and profound”, “tasteful and affecting”. And so on, ad nauseam.

I did crave to know more about the practical and pertinent details of Stephen’s social care. I admit this wasn’t within the remit of this story, of Jane’s story. But how did he get his staff (eventually) in place? From a disabled person’s perspective, I need to know these things; there can be a strong validation in seeing aspects of your life echoed in that of a famous disabled person’s. After all, it doesn’t happen every day or even every year.

And I have to bring in class, sorry. Hawking the recognised genius, is supported by a devoted wife, and colleagues, as his impairment progresses. As Stephen is supporting the film, we can only trust that this is true – but it’s a long way from the struggle with disability if you are poor, working class and not remotely privileged. There’s a nod to Stephen being a –‘liberal socialist’ – but I get the sense that he was never on the rough end of a government sponsored drive to get scrounging disabled people off benefits, and that his extraordinary brain found him the gilded life at Cambridge, allowing him to bypass many of the challenges we ordinary cripples face. I also wonder if many a Con-Dem hasn’t speculated unhelpfully that if Prof Hawking can work, why can’t the bloody lot of you lazy shirkers? There’s much irony then that this film is primarily about the world’s most famous disabled person.

Did Hawking receive the now doomed Independent Living Fund, set to close in June of this year? The Prof does support our fight to stop it closing; the redoubtable disabled activist Gabriel Pepper has letters to prove it. A shame that our fight to save ILF, which supports severely disabled people like him to live independently, cannot link into the PR around this film.

I know that I’ve raised issues outside of the remit of a gentle and middling biopic made by non-disabled people and supported by one disabled person, who dare I say, seems utterly disinterested in disability politics.

Yet this film might purport to be a story about a rather engaging couple who find themselves in a set of unexpected circumstances, but especially as Eddie won the Oscar, it’s set to be a global phenomenon. It will move across the world’s movie markets and take on its own time travel. Hawking may be a genius but he ain’t no obvious activist. I’ll leave the argument of whether he should be for another day, but regrettably this film carries tired ideals and predictable messages about the fear of impairment, which do little to give average disabled person, the not-so-genius like me, anything much to celebrate.

I’ll end by saying like the paradoxes we are told exist in physics, this film is heavy with the contradictory – when considering Stephen Hawking, at the centre of it all, is the most famous disabled person in the world, and one I speculate, who is actually quite happy with his lot.