“The Theory of Everything,” the biopic about cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane, works handsomely as a movie about a genius, one who tried to understand the universe at the deepest levels and then tell us about it in an airport paperback.
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen, improbably and rather brilliantly, all the way from his early days at Cambridge to the pinnacles of science celebrity some 30 years later. You will see a gangly, bespectacled young Stephen Hawking scribbling equations in unsteady chalkmanship on a blackboard to the strains of stringed instruments, and you will get self-effacing descriptions of how simple it all is, the universe in its elegance. You know, your typical math/space genius flick.
This being Stephen Hawking, however, you know the shy but chipper student — coxswain on the crew team, reluctant dancer — will soon be stricken. That the real-life scientist remains productive as he nears his 73rd birthday plays in relief, pun intended, to the moment in this film, at age 21, when a doctor explains to Stephen that he has a degenerative neural disorder that will rob him of all voluntary motor functions, including, horrifically, speaking and swallowing. His prognosis: two years to live, at a point when his PhD could not seem that near.
“The Theory of Everything” is stirring, then, as a grave disability flick, and a convincing one at that. Redmayne, seen two years ago as the dashing revolutionary heartthrob Marius in “Les Miserables,” crumples himself into the long-lived ALS patient, his limbs contorted, his face collapsing. It’s a spooky transformation, worthy of mention with Jamie Foxx in “Ray” or Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull.”
The deterioration brings to the fore the romance that truly moves “The Theory of Everything” — natural, perhaps, given that Anthony McCarten, the screenwriter, adapted it from Jane Hawking’s memoir of her life with Stephen. Felicity Jones plays Jane here, also through the decades, with an emotional arc that comes to dominate the story around the time Stephen’s speech all but melts down.
After the couple’s second child, she joins a church choir, seeking respite from juggling the kids and a wheelchair-bound husband. There she meets a widower (Charlie Cox) who offers to help with the literal heavy lifting of family life. He spends enough time with the Hawkings, even on holidays, that by the third child, suspicions linger as to who truly is the man of the house.
Director James Marsh leaves such questions to answer themselves quietly, giving respectful distance to people who are still living and, after all, did consent to the movie rights. Even as we come to inhabit this marriage, we are never far from the mysteries of the universe; visually, the interplay of light and dark recurs, to strong effect. But what becomes increasingly clear is how our understanding of the cosmos owes to Stephen Hawking being alive and well, and how that owes to such a quotidian sublimity as the love of a good woman.
Stephen Hawking is an exceedingly brilliant fellow, and by all accounts seems engaging, but when he cannot mount so much as a single stair alone — scaling a flight of them in the early stages of his disease mimics hand-to-hand combat — the need for human connection trumps the life of the mind. Had he been an insufferable S.O.B., no one might’ve provided for him to pursue a unifying theory of relativity and quantum physics. For the universe not to be such a dark place, someone has to cook the dinner. Someone must uncap the beers.