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The Theory of Everything

There is a moment during the first act of The Theory of Everything in which a 21-year-old Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is at a school dance with fellow Cambridge student and the woman he will one day marry, Jane Wilde, as they have broken from the crowd and look up at the night sky and effervescent stars in wonder. Despite their different spiritual beliefs (Jane goes to church every Sunday, Stephen has “a slight problem with the celestial dictatorship premise”) they’re both deeply moved by the breathtaking sight. As they proceed to dance under the moonlight and share their first kiss, I couldn’t help but recall a similar moment I experienced at 21, when on a cold December night I gazed up at those same stars with my first love, together experiencing both the awesome beauty of the universe as well as the universal beauty of love.

I mention this to highlight one of the key aspects that makes director James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything so successful, which is the way that it takes its subject; the life of brilliant theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, and brings his story down to earth. While diehard admirers of Hawking’s work might be disappointed that this biographical film doesn’t focus more on the man’s groundbreaking ideas (the title derives from Hawking’s hope to find a mathematical equation that would explain the beginning of time), The Theory of Everything is instead a moving love story, based on the memoirs of Jane Wilde Hawking, his first wife, and adapted by screenwriter Anthony McCarten. The film details how she fell in love with the brilliant, sensitive young man, their marriage following his diagnosis with ALS disease, and how, with her support, he would overcome the illness and go on to become one of the most influential thinkers of our time. And despite how romantic much of the picture is, the filmmakers don’t shy away from the darker aspects of Hawking’s life, from showing the terrible effects of his illness as well as the emotional toll it takes on his marriage.

Much praise has been deservedly voiced in regards to Redmayne’s extraordinary lead performance, but I would be remiss not to echo it further. From the awkward college student to the young man robbed of his motor functions and up through middle age, Redmayne brings Hawking to life with the utmost believability, conveying so much through his eyes alone in the film’s latter scenes, one feels at times that one is watching documentary footage. Comparisons to Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, another incredible performance from a young British actor portraying a man struck with a terrible physical paralysis, are strongly warranted. Jones is wonderful as Jane Wilde Hawking—so beautiful, warm and deeply empathetic is she as the supporting wife, who does everything she can to help her husband, even as his condition worsens and she drifts towards another man(Charlie Cox as Jonathan Jones, who would become her second husband.) Overall, the quality of the acting could scarcely be higher.

The Theory of Everything also benefits from the assured direction of Marsh, whose previous efforts include the great documentary Man on Wire. Though he can’t restrain himself from milking certain dramatic beats for the utmost sentimentality (You just know by the time Hawking is lecturing before an audience moved to give him a standing ovation near the film’s end that Johann Johannsson’s heartwarming score will soar over the thunderous applause, just so everyone watching in the theater can be certain they got the message), he never lets his stylistic flourishes, or Benoit Delhomme’s lush cinematography, distract from the story and his magnificent cast. The end result is a moving and inspirational cinematic rendering of Hawking’s life, made very entertaining thanks to a beautiful romance and buoyed by some good natured humor (After all, Hawking himself once said life would be tragic if it weren’t so funny.)

Watch the trailer for The Theory of Everything

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