For a while, Stephen Hawking had everything figured out. The handsome young scientist was dominating general theory relativity and quantum mechanics, and his beautiful new wife, Jane, adored him.
Then disease began dominating his body. And it took a toll on their marriage.
The engrossing biopic “The Theory of Everything” brings a tad more insight into the eminent physicist. He’s more than that smart guy in the wheelchair who speaks via a computer voice. But where it really shines is in the complicated relationship between Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his first wife (Felicity Jones).
This potential Oscar nominee is not based on his best-selling book “A Brief History of Time” but on her 2007 memoir “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.” The swapped perspective adds more intrigue to the conventional “life story.”
The film begins in 1963 at England’s prestigious Cambridge University. The prodigy is already gaining attention for his radical approach to cosmology, which he describes as “a kind of religion for intelligent atheists.” Jane is an actual religious girl who is studying medieval Spanish poetry. Opposites attract, as it were.
Hawking is hoping to find a unifying equation that explains life as we know it when he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease (they don’t call it Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS in Britain). The degenerative condition in due course leaves him unable to walk or speak. As his doctor says, “Your thoughts won’t change, but eventually no one will know what they are.”
If “Theory” isn’t exactly penetrating, at least it’s not maudlin. There’s a density to the couple’s relationship that goes beyond simple love or devotion. Give credit to the filmmaking that when Jane begins canoodling with a widowed choirmaster (Charlie Cox) and Stephen flirts with his brassy in-home nurse (Maxine Peake), it doesn’t seem like “cheating.” It’s more a logical progression of what each married partner truly deserves.
Director James Marsh won an Oscar for his incredible art-crime documentary “Man on Wire,” and here he proves capable of walking a tightrope between science and sentiment. The film is rich in period detail and assembled with a vivid range of cinematography and editing flourishes. Notice how many spirals Hawking encounters in everyday life that remind him of the swirling black holes that anchor his research: staircases, eyes, even the cream in coffee (or perhaps it was tea).
Yet there are also choices that don’t do any favors for screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s storytelling. Home movies denoting the passage of time? Really?
Otherwise, the performances keep things absorbing. In his thick black frames, wide smile and ’60s Brit demeanor, the charismatic Redmayne (“Les Miserables,” “My Life With Marilyn”) first looks like Austin Powers. And he gets his share of funny quips for a guy who can’t talk. (Filmmakers used the real Hawking’s computer voice for those later scenes.)
Physically, Redmayne’s role falls into the category of “brilliant people trapped in failing bodies.” Although Oscar voters may argue, his respectable portrayal doesn’t reach quite the same heights as Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot” or even John Hawkes in “The Sessions.”
The most resonant performance comes from Jones (“Like Crazy”). The early scenes of their Cambridge days find the brunette bubbly and undaunted. Cuteness personified. It’s during the later stretches where we can read in her hazel eyes the sheer weight of marriage, parenting and career unfulfillment.
This leads to one of the saddest, most unusual breakup scenes in cinema. “The Theory of Everything” doesn’t quite have everything that classic biopics demand. But this segment alone makes the film feel like it could stand the test of time — no matter how brief that might be.
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material.
‘THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING’
Rated PG-13 | Time: 2:03