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The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything

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Rating: ★★★¼☆ 

Stephen Hawking is arguably the world’s most influential scientist. He’s taken mind-bending concepts like black holes, multiple universes and string theory and made them accessible enough for gorgeous coffee table books. His dynamic mind has done all this despite a body that, over the years, has become virtually frozen in place by a motor neuron disease related to ALS. His celebrity status even earned him guest spots (using his synthesized voice) on “The Simpsons” and “Futurama,” while he appeared in-person on “The Big Bang Theory.” All this is widely known. What’s been less scrutinized is Hawking’s romantic life, which has included two lengthy marriages and the birth of three children.

Adapted from Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir, The Theory of Everything focuses on the couple’s three-decade marriage. From Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane’s (Felicity Jones) meet-cute at Cambridge— before Hawking’s disease had manifested—to their eventual divorce, this film charts a romantic beginning that quickly turns into a challenging daily struggle to cope with rapid loss of physical function. Originally given just two years to live, Hawking persevered in those early days due in large part to the loyalty and devotion of his new wife, despite the fact that he was an outspoken atheist and she was highly religious.

Ultimately, Hawking’s growing celebrity would play a key factor in the dissolution of the couple’s marriage. A bevy of caregivers and medical personnel made a private family life even more difficult. In one interview, Jane even described her primary duty as “simply to tell him that he’s not God.” The film depicts this strain, but only in more muted form. Jane is never seen as truly at her wit’s end, aided as she is by Jonathan (Charlie Cox), the choir leader who became a friend and caregiver to Stephen and who, after the divorce, made Jane his own wife.

Biopics are notorious Oscar-bait, and Redmayne throws his hat into the ring with a powerful performance as the increasingly non-verbal Hawking. Early on, he’s charmingly awkward, and by the film’s end he’s contorted in a power chair, effectively emoting with just the tensing of an eyebrow or quiver of a lip. As Jane, Jones also turns in a strong performance, and overall the acting carries a story that’s otherwise light on tension. Meanwhile, director James Marsh presents a warmly-lit atmosphere that ramps up the sentimentality factor.

A Theory of Everything only offers a cursory look into the esteemed cosmologist’s actual career. The science behind Hawking’s work is almost wholly glossed over, except for a few early scenes at Cambridge and some dinner table conversations. This helps the film avoid some of the usual pitfalls of biopics. There’s no hagiography here, though Stephen is cast as admirable even when he’s announcing his intentions to leave Jane for his nurse (Maxine Peake). And while the film does delve into the details of the great physicist’s family life, it doesn’t seem intent on being overly revelatory either. Instead, this picture serves as a tribute to two people who defied the odds together in their early years and raised a family. The Theory of Everything is the Hawkings’ universe in a nutshell.

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