Review: Redmayne becomes Stephen Hawking for inspiring ‘Theory of Everything’
A great performance makes us forget the actor and see only their creation. That’s what happens in “The Theory of Everything.” We forget Eddie Redmayne’s meticulous efforts to re-create the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking, a great thinker trapped in a contorted, crumbling body.
His turn is so uncanny that we lose track of how beautifully conventional this story would be, were it not for its unconventional focus. This is a biography of the author of “A Brief History of Time” tucked into an appreciation for the extraordinary woman who married him, nursed him and propped up his increasingly disabled body so that his brilliant mind could do its work.
The film starts us at 1963 Cambridge, when young Hawking was hiding his potential behind laziness and procrastination. His esteemed professor (David Thewlis, always spot-on) sees Hawking’s potential and indulges his genius.
Then, Hawking meets another distraction. Jane (Felicity Jones) is pert and pretty and proper and not afraid of the shy atheist who flirts with her at a campus mixer.
But there’s a hitch in his gait and a growing gnarl to his fingers. And when, 45 minutes into his search for “The Theory of Everything,” student-Stephen crashes to the ground on a Cambridge quad, the tragedy of his life begins. His diagnosed motor-neuron disorder, Lou Gehrig’s disease, gives him a two-year life expectancy.
“Theory” isn’t about treatment or therapy, but it is, in a way, about what has kept Hawking alive half a century beyond his “two years” life expectancy. There’s the work, his ever-evolving epiphanies about time and black holes. And there’s Jane, who has his children and takes care of him and them without complaint.
Director James Marsh emphasizes the lightness, the comic sparkle that makes Hawking, robbed of so many of his body’s functions, a natural comic; Redmayne lets us see the twinkle in his eyes.
Jones has a beguiling screen presence that allows us to see what Jane misses as her husband becomes less of a companion and lover and more of a burden. We never quite see why she chose this life, willingly and with open eyes from the start — a shortcoming of the film.
Despite that, this delightful and inspiring drama succeeds the way Hawking has. It’s reaching beyond your grasp, in life, in science and in film biographies, that achieves greatness.
Roger Moore reviews movies for Tribune News Service.