Film and TV

Eddie Redmayne Is a Marvel in The Theory of Everything

If the universe is infinitely finite, an entity whose mystery is knowable only through an evolving progression of theories and equations, it's nothing compared to a marriage. Every marriage or long-term partnership is knowable only to the people inside it — and sometimes not even then. The Theory of Everything tells the story of genius theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking's marriage to the former Jane Wilde, though of course it can tell that story only from the outside. But the film is striking, at times even piercing, for the way it infiltrates some universal realities of marriage. If the secrets of making marriage work were a science, then geniuses might be able to help us through it. As it is, even brainiacs like Stephen Hawking have to muddle through like the rest of us.

Hawking was diagnosed with a serious motor-neuron disease in his early twenties, a condition that began attacking his motor capabilities and fairly quickly put him in a wheelchair. But The Theory of Everything — which is based on Jane Hawking's memoir and directed by James Marsh, who gave us the Philippe Petit documentary Man on Wire — begins in 1963, before any of that happens. Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) is still a cosmology student at Cambridge, a shy, shambling, soft-spoken nerd-babe, sexy in an E=mc2 way. His walk is a kind of bent-forward slouch, but you wouldn't attribute that to any lurking physical ailment. He seems, simply, to be always racing forward in his thoughts. It's only natural his body should try to follow.

You can see why fellow student Jane (Felicity Jones) — well-bred, well-mannered and pot-of-cream pretty — would be attracted to him. The two meet at a party, and at first Hawking can't muster the momentum to get a relationship going. He's wasting valuable time, though he doesn't yet know just how valuable. Not long after the two finally get together, Stephen stumbles and lands unconscious on the pavement at school. A doctor figures out what the problem is, informing Stephen he has only about two years to live. Jane decides that she wants to make a life with him anyway; the two marry and begin having babies. We see Stephen holding his first child, a daughter, as an infant. Holding babies two and three will become more difficult as his motor capabilities deteriorate, but he manages anyway; at every stage, Stephen, as Redmayne plays him, radiates the joy of being in such close proximity to a tiny new being.

Through all of it, of course, Stephen is spinning out one brilliant theory after another; the coconut on his hunched shoulders is formidable. His fame grows, but the strain of looking after him — while also raising three children — begins to wear on Jane. She says she needs outside help; Stephen resists it. A third party, a music teacher named Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), enters their circumscribed world, complicating it. Then a hired nurse, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), complicates it more. A marriage can hold only two people, but putting up barricades against the outside world is impossible.

The Theory of Everything may slightly sanitize the truth; this is, after all, a story told from the point of view of an ex-wife. (Hawking, now 72, is said to have deemed the movie's depiction "broadly true.") The film is as polished as a piece of fine walnut furniture, and particularly sly in the way it folds complex and sometimes painful ideas about love and commitment into a somewhat glossy package. What makes the picture so believable is its unspoken insistence that friendship, not romance, is the backbone of marriage. As their union falls apart, Jane shows her bruised disappointment when Stephen no longer comes to her first with some bit of happy news. But the next minute, she laughs easily at one of his wry jokes, unable to shut herself off from the core of whatever she loved about him in the first place.

Both Jones and Redmayne are marvelous as two strong, perceptive people locked in a frustrating pas de deux. Jones is almost childlike in her early scenes; you can't believe her Jane, small as a wintertime bird, will have the strength to help Stephen into and out of his wheelchair. But by the end of the film — and by the inevitable end of the marriage — Jones, ever alert and intent, makes you believe Jane is capable of anything.

Redmayne's job is even trickier, but he pulls it off beautifully: How does an actor play the person and not the infirmity? Redmayne succeeds, without succumbing to mere impersonation. We're so intent on watching him that the wheelchair recedes to the point where it practically disappears. All we see is a man, one with a crooked Cheshire Cat grin, proving that physicality is all in the mind.

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Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.