It’s just as easy to sit through the film’s third act and shake your head at how the male mind works.
That’s as close to a spoiler as you’ll get here, but when you’re dealing with a love story based on real people happy endings come with caveats.
The saga of Stephen Hawking’s tragic diagnosis and the woman who saw him through the worst of it is compelling all the same. We’re treated to diametrically opposed performances, one that makes Oscar voters snap to attention, the other a symphony of micro-gestures too often under-valued.
It’s a beautiful dance that honors one of the West’s most noteworthy minds. That part of the story, alas, takes a back seat to the gentle strumming of our heart-strings.
Eddie Redmayne is Stephen Hawking, a promising student at the University of Cambridge. His lessons get sidetracked when he eyes Jane (Felicity Jones), a fellow student who finds his intellectual hunger adorable. The attraction is palpable, undeniable.
When Stephen starts tripping over his own feet on campus he ends up in a local hospital. It’s there he gets the worst news of his life – he suffers from a variation of the motor-neuron disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that leaves him with two years to live. He tries to spare Jane from watching his body betray him, but she won’t have it.
She’s already fallen for his crooked glasses and earnest grin.
Redmayne captures Hawking’s physical limitations, the gnarled hands, the loss of motor functions, the contorted expressions when he tries to make a two-syllable word come out. Yet he lets Hawking’s humor, rage and humanity peek through as needed. Jones carries the quieter acting challenge, showing both undying love and the exasperation that come with caring for someone with Hawking’s condition.
The edges on both characters have been sanded down to a smooth but hardly perfect polish, Jane is mostly a saint, while Stephen’s darkest moods are followed by a British quip or act of steely determination.
“The Theory of Everything” acknowledges Hawking’s genius, but the nuts and bolts of his achievements are treated like cute subplots meant to nudge things along. At one point, he backtracks on a theory he spent a great deal of energy supporting, as if he were eager to apologize for wasting our time.
The film similarly soft pedals Hawking’s atheism, something the real figure has embraced with more intensity in recent years. It’s a laugh line when he dubs God a “celestial dictator.” His interactions with a close family friend (Charlie Cox), a man of deep faith, showcase their genteel differences on the subject.
Didn’t Stephen and Jane, a woman of faith (at least initially) have some dramatic arguments on the subject? You wouldn’t know from watching their interactions here.
Based on Jane Hawking’s memoir “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” The Theory of Everything” suffers from the flaws that dog many biopics. If only the genre could spawn as many magnificent couples as the one Redmayne and Jones conjure on screen.
DID YOU KNOW: Stephen Hawking is considered one of the brightest minds of the modern age. For a while, though, he clearly wasn’t applying himself. In high school he once ranked as the third worst student in his class.