To properly appreciate this touching and illuminating account of the 30-year marriage between Stephen and Jane Hawking, it's helpful to bear in mind that this is her story, not his. Literally. Director James Marsh (Man on Wire) and writer Anthony McCarten based the film on Jane's 2007 memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen. It's a remarkable chronicle of her experience with one of the world's most remarkable human beings, rendered not a bit less remarkable by being told from her perspective.
Which is another way of saying that viewers shouldn't expect the movie to go deep into the astrophysicist's ruminations on the origin of the universe. This isn't A Brief History of Time (1991) or Stephen Hawking's Grand Design (2012). This is a picture that has more in common with the sort of romantic drama in which you might find Hugh Grant. If, that is, Grant were an actor capable of playing the smartest man on Earth as he collapses like a black hole before our eyes.
Grant isn't, but Eddie Redmayne definitely is. Even if you've seen him in films as varied as The Good Shepherd (2006), My Week With Marilyn (2011) and Les Misérables (2012), you wouldn't recognize him here in a million years. The Theory of Everything provides the shape-shifting Brit with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dig deep and dazzle on a level to which few besides Daniel Day-Lewis ever ascend. And I have zero fear of putting my left foot — or my right — in my mouth when I say that.
What a wonderfully funny, subtle, heartbreaking and ultimately stirring performance Redmayne gives. We're accustomed to thinking of the author and professor (Hawking holds the post at Cambridge once occupied by Isaac Newton) as a twisted, wheelchair-bound figure who speaks with a computerized voice. So it's bittersweet to watch the early scenes in which Hawking's a geeky but still fully ambulatory physics wiz at that same university. There he falls for Jane, a graduate student majoring in poetry. Felicity Jones does a first-rate, immensely moving job in the role.
The two are in the midst of starting their lives together when Hawking's body begins to play cruel tricks on him. In 1963, at the age of 21, he's diagnosed with the progressive neuromuscular disease ALS and given two years to live. The movie focuses more or less equally on Stephen's deterioration and Jane's determination to marry, raise a family and keep up her end of the bargain. Talk about "for better or worse."
My father faced the same disease and the same prognosis, so I can say with some authority that Redmayne gets the details of the horrible process astonishingly right. From the rubbering of limbs to the garbling of speech, it's all there. Step by dehumanizing step, we see the illness suck the strength from his body until it's a shriveled husk, and the performer makes every awful stage credible. Hawking, as we know, beat the odds. He's alive today, his mind unfazed, and his life's work constitutes an extraordinary achievement.
Caring for someone in his condition and facilitating that level of accomplishment constitutes an extraordinary achievement in its own right, and the picture properly gives Jane her due. Only a truly exceptional woman could simultaneously meet the needs of three growing children and an increasingly dependent adult.
The film may have its Hallmark moments and gloss over an unflattering fact or two, but in the end it triumphs as a portrait of a brave, brilliant man and the equally courageous woman who gave him everything.