By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The title, The Theory of Everything, describes Stephen Hawking’s ultimate goal as a physicist and philosopher: to create one unifying theory that explains nothing less than existence in this universe.
Hey, no biggie. But, then, doing the seemingly impossible became and remained Hawking’s stock in trade.
Whether he has actually achieved that articulated goal or not, the renowned scientist has certainly helped change the way we think about the universe, in the tradition of such predecessors as Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.
Hawking (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2004 telemovie “Hawking”) managed to become a familiar name in pop culture largely because of his investigation of black holes and his physical deterioration as a result of a crippling degenerative affliction not unlike ALS, which has come to be called Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
The Theory of Everything is a deeply affecting romantic biography focused on the relationship between theoretical physicist Hawking, played by Eddie Redmayne, and his first wife, Jane Wilde, portrayed by Felicity Jones.
It is based on her memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, which chronicles them falling in love while students at Cambridge University in the 1960s -– he as a grad student in physics, she pursuing a Ph.D. in medieval poetry.
And they will go on to defy the life-expectancy and remaining-loved-ones odds, raising three children as they confront and overcome unthinkably intimidating obstacles that dwarf those they start off with (including their religious differences, with him an avowed atheist and her a devout congregant in the Church of England).
Given his ever-progressing handicap, at age 21 he’s given two years to live, a diagnosis that steely Jane refuses to accept, just as she refuses to endorse his understandable spiral of despair.
And, sure enough, here he is all these years later as a wheelchair-bound icon using a voice synthesizer to communicate.
The cosmological physics at hand, the investigation into the origins of the universe, which must be acknowledged and dealt with and which could easily have served to disenfranchise an otherwise captivated audience, is worked into the narrative sensibly and gracefully, never pulling focus from the relationship under the microscope.
And as Stephen and Jane struggle for family-life normality, what we’re invited to watch isn’t a relationship involving ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, but instead two extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.
Director James Marsh (Shadow Dancer, The King), who started as a documentarian (the Oscar-winning Man on Wire, Project Nim, The Team), works from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, who also served as a producer. McCarten based his script on Jane Hawking’s memoir after being inspired by Stephen Hawking’s influential 1988 science-for-laypeople bestseller, A Brief History of Time.
What Marsh has skillfully delivered is a movie that’s only minimally cerebral but, more often than not, audience-friendly emotional. For which we’re grateful, even if we wish we could have come away with a bit more of a feel for just what Hawking’s world-changing contributions were.
Instead, the film’s towers of power are Marsh’s two British leads, who are nothing if not smartly cast and superlative.
The biopic may be conventionally structured, but Redmayne is unconventionally astounding. Having more or less quietly impressed in such films as My Week with Marilyn and Les Misérables, he gives an unforgettable performance, with facial and bodily contortions that seem natural as opposed to “actorly,” in a performance during which we cannot help but think of Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning work in My Left Foot.
Redmayne conveys an amalgam of brilliance, self-deprecating humor, frustration, frailty, and feelings without moving a muscle, using his eyes to indicate just how active his brain remains and his crooked smile to convey his wry wit.
No less impressive is Jones, who came to notice in Like Crazy and The Invisible Woman. She matches Redmayne from beginning to end, displaying tirelessly devoted caregiver and motivator Jane’s seemingly impossible resoluteness with uncanny persuasiveness.
Look for the stock of these two rising stars to skyrocket overnight as we overcome 3 stars out of 4. The Theory of Everything is a sensitive and inspiring biodrama about an elastic, unconventional relationship and a triumph over adversity, with the kind of consummate acting by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones that could very well catapult them into this year’s array of Oscar races.