A great performance makes us forget the actor and see only the creation. That’s what happens in “The Theory of Everything.” We forget Eddie Redmayne’s meticulous efforts to recreate 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. How smart can he be? He doesn’t know what she means when she says “C. of E.” (Church of England).Young Hawking just grins and shrugs off “the whole celestial dictator premise” of Christianity, and she’s charmed.
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Meeting his family of wits — Simon McBurney is disarmingly warm, dismissive and sarcastic as Hawking’s dad — doesn’t scare Medieval Spanish poetry major Jane off, either.
“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. Hawking’s dad counsels her, “This will not be a fight, Jane. This will be a very heavy defeat.” But she’s absorbed her parents’ spine of steel and won’t be chased off. They will marry and “fight this disease together.”
“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, working from an Anthony McCarten script, emphasizes the lightness, the comic sparkle, that makes Hawking, robbed of so many of his body’s functions, a natural comic, even today. The real Hawking pops up on sitcoms (”The Simpsons,” “The Big Bang Theory”). Redmayne lets us see the twinkle in his eyes as others notice the computer voice synthesizer given him has “an American accent.”
A favorite scene — a spring dance in college, where the non-dancing Hawking woos the poetry major by explaining why the white ties and vests of the formally attired men shine brighter in the low light. “Tide,” he says. The laundry detergent had phosphorus in it.
Marsh keeps the camera in close — extreme close-ups for a doctor’s diagnosis, a hint of Jane’s attraction, or Hawking’s crooked grin well after the disease has started its awful work. Somebody has been looking for him.
“You just missed him,” he stammers and slurs. “He was here, earlier!”
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, which is a shortcoming of the film.
As this is based on Jane’s book, and both she and her now-ex-husband Hawking are still living, we’ll have to take their word for it that this was the most amicable divorce in history, or we’ll have to wait to get at some messier truth until those involved die.
But no matter how short “The Theory of Everything” falls in those regards, this delightful and inspiring drama 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.