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 isn’t “My Left Foot” with a computer-voice interface. 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.
“Theory of Everything” takes us from 1963 Cambridge, when young Hawking was hiding his potential behind laziness and procrastination. His esteemed professor (David Thewlis, always spot-on) may want to separate “the quarks from the quacks” in his class, but he sees Hawking’s potential and indulges his genius.
Then Hawking meets another distraction, to go along with chess. Jane (Felicity Jones) is pert and pretty and proper, and not afraid of the shy atheist who flirts with her at a campus mixer.
Young Hawking just grins and shrugs off “the whole celestial dictator premise” of Christianity, and she’s charmed. Meeting his family of wits — Simon McBurney is disarmingly warm, dismissive and sarcastic as Hawking’s dad — doesn’t scare the Medieval Spanish poetry major Jane off, either.
‘The Theory of Everything’
DIRECTED BY: James Marsh
STARRING: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney and Christian McKay
RATED: PG-13 GRADE: A
RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes
“I like to time travel,” she flirts to the cosmologist Hawking, “like you!”
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. He may smile when he says it, but he chases away friends and Jane.
This is where Jane shows her resolve and the movie averts a turn to tragedy. Remember, these were the children of Britain’s World War II generation, born during or just after the conflict.
“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.
“The Theory of Everything” is a delightful and inspiring drama that succeeds the way Hawking has, even as he fails to deliver that “one theory” that explains “everything.” It’s reaching beyond your grasp, in life, in science and in film biographies, that achieves greatness.
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