Anchored by a superb central performance, The Theory of Everything is a well-executed and moving portrait of Stephen Hawking, a man who refused to let a debilitating disease stop him from finding love, happiness and fame as one of the world’s most respected physicists.
The story begins in 1963, when Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a grad student majoring in cosmology at Cambridge. He’s twitchy, socially inept and seemingly lost in his own world, yet he attracts the attention of Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a beautiful arts major. A courtship ensues, with Jane drawing the misfit out of his shell and Hawking enlightening Jane with his dazzling theories about the creation of the universe.
He begins to notice that he’s having increasing difficulty walking and performing the most basic tasks, however, and when he collapses on campus, he’s taken to the hospital where he is diagnosed with motor neurone disease. His doctor explains that he will continue to lose his ability to move and eventually even breathe on his own, and will probably survive only a couple of years. Faced with this death sentence, Hawking retreats to his room and tries to push Jane away, but she vows to stay with him regardless of how much time they may have.
They marry, and over the course of the next 30 years, have children, celebrate holidays, cope with his continuing infirmities, experience jealousies and temptations — and finally separate. The point that director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten make here is that Hawking, whom most people view as a withered genius in a wheelchair, is also a man like any other, with admirable qualities as well as shortcomings.
Marsh’s film moves with a balletic grace, enhanced by Benoît Delhomme’s lush cinematography. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is rich but not overly sentimental, meshing well with McCarten’s screenplay that wisely keeps Hawking’s famous sense of humor in the forefront.
Redmayne is a revelation as Hawking, contorting his body ever so gradually throughout the film until the uncanny transformation is complete. It’s an admirably subtle performance, one that makes a plea for understanding without begging for pity. He’s matched by Jones’ portrayal of Jane, whose own transformation from happy young wife to embittered caregiver is equally effective. Charlie Cox is wonderful as Jonathan, a lonely choirmaster who becomes emotionally involved with the family, and Maxine Peake is devilishly amusing as the saucy nurse Elaine, who wants Hawking all to herself.
As Jane’s mother, Beryl, Emily Watson appears only in a few scenes, but she does set up the best line in the film. Rightly assuming that Jane needs a diversion from the stress of caring for Hawking, she sits her daughter down with a cup of tea and says, “Jane, I think you should join the church choir,” to which Jane responds, “That’s the most English thing anyone has ever said.”
It’s moments like this that give The Theory of Everything its spark.
Review by Kurt Gardner.
Now playing in selected Los Angeles cinemas.