Early on in “The Theory of Everything,” a hesitant doctor in the early 1960s tries to explain to the young, brilliant cosmology student Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) exactly what his new diagnosis of motor neuron disease will mean. “Your thoughts won’t change,” the doctor explains, to an incredulous Stephen. “It’s just that eventually, no one will know what they are.”
More than half a century later, we know that the doctor was wrong: Hawking is still with us, still brilliant and still communicating, despite limited movement, through books (written using a keyboard operated by facial movement), lectures (via a computerized voice system) and an active family life. Based on a memoir by Stephen’s wife, Jane, “The Theory of Everything” is the story not just of a man, but of a relationship; it’s less about medicine and science than about love, in all its complexities.
James Marsh, a filmmaker best known for documentaries (“Man on Wire,” “Project Nim”), lets the film become romantic yet never sentimental; there’s nothing sugarcoated about what young Stephen and Jane (Felicity Jones) faced. We see the two meet as undergraduate students at Cambridge and quickly become an item; neither realizes that Stephen’s frequent stumbles and fumblings mean anything beyond absent-minded clumsiness. Upon receiving his diagnosis, Stephen tries to step away from Jane; she’s having none of it. “I love you,” she says, clear-eyed, flooring him. The movie takes us through the early years of their marriage and three children, through Stephen’s physical decline, through Jane’s unhappiness, through the arrival of someone who makes her happier. It is, surprisingly, a very modern marriage of hearts and minds, but hardly a storybook one.
Other than a soft, yellow-lit dream sequence that bookends the film, “The Theory of Everything” is mostly a conventional biopic about two very unconventional people, and it rests comfortably in the hands of the two actors playing Stephen and Jane. Jones takes the pillar-of-strength role and makes something quirky and honest from it; her Jane simmers with both love and frustration. Redmayne, disguised behind thick National Health glasses and messy bangs, undergoes a remarkable transformation: Over the years, Stephen’s head flops over to the side, his ankles become unable to support him, his facial expressions are reduced to eloquent brows and a partial smile or frown. And yet, the essence of the careless, brilliant young man we met in the film’s early frames is still there; it’s as if Redmayne’s playing two characters, one fitting inside the other. The movie’s vague on Hawking’s science, but very clear — and moving — on love.
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Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org