There was a scene in “Interstellar” that derailed the entire movie. It was a turning point when I went from liking the movie to slowly loathing it. Anne Hathaway’s character spins an awkward yarn about how love is unquantifiable but that perhaps it’s the one variable truly powerful enough to cut through time and space. To Hathaway’s credit: She delivered it with more earnestness and gravitas than the written page deserved. The idea of introducing love into the equation felt almost laughable in a movie that seemed intent on delivering a very grounded, frills-free look at space exploration. I thought about that clunky speech a lot while watching “The Theory of Everything,” a movie that takes the assertion that love is capable of more than the mind can conceive.
You’re probably familiar with Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), even if it’s only because of the image of his bespectacled frail frame wedged into a wheelchair, and the monotone warble of the computerized program used to make his thoughts audible. He had a brilliant mind, trapped in a brittle body—one of the greatest thinkers of our time. He made discoveries that changed the way we view the universe. What we already knew about Hawking was impressive enough. The movie does what a good biopic should: It delves into those unknown corners and gives us insight into the person we don’t know. It’s also an extremely challenging look at his disintegration, as his body betrays him again and again.
We meet Hawking when he’s still in the idealistic hubris of his youth. A student at Cambridge, he wants to become a doctor and is fascinated with the world of physics. He’s looking for that one equation that will explain how our world came to be and the potential for where it could go. One night at a party, he meets that special someone and time seems to stand still. Jane (Felicity Jones) is a fetching young lady able to match wits with Hawking, and the two fall madly in love. Hawking is the perfect combination of awkward and charming, and Jane has a strength and will that he is drawn to. Their love story is quite beautiful and unconventional.
After Hawking is diagnosed with ALS, he is told he has two years to live. His mental state becomes fragile, but rather than running from adversity, Jane convinces Hawking to make the most of his time left. They marry and start a family. He begins to discover the blessings of life while struggling to control his body.
There’s so much heartbreak in “The Theory of Everything.” Redmayne’s performance is moving in a way that never feels manipulative. The transformation from dashing student to caged genius is difficult and heartfelt. It comes perfectly buoyed by Jones’ Jane, who is forced to become stronger with every subsequent setback. There are so many perfect little moments wherein your emotions stir and you can’t fight back tears from the corner of your eyes: saddened by the fact that someone had to endure this suffering and emboldened by how gracefully they were able to endure.
There are similar stories. Movies like “A Beautiful Mind” have covered this territory in a clunkier way. The beauty of “The Theory of Everything” is how consistently it’s able to effectively evoke emotions. It doesn’t just rely on Hawking’s condition to stir the viewer. Some of the most heartbreaking moments involve the simple humanity of sacrifice: the normalcy you give up to love someone who requires more care than one person can provide.
I love “The Theory of Everything,” and that is a wonderful surprise because I generally loathe biopics. They usually hit the same familiar notes. This story didn’t take me anywhere unexpected, but, damn, if it didn’t play a familiar tune in the most symphonic of ways. The cinematography, the music, the performances are all perfectly tuned and played. Much like “Birdman,” I loved the way in which the story was told. Director James Marsh (“Man on Wire”) revealed himself as a phenomenal new voice with an impressive skill set. The movie stayed with me, burrowing through my calloused outer layer. It resounded within me for a nice stretch after the credits rolled. The word “moving” is thrown around a lot, but this film shook my foundation.
I thought I wouldn’t see a performance as electrifying as Michael Keaton in “Birdman,” but just one week later Eddie Redmayne has raised the bar. He proved himself insanely captivating as Hawking, even in the later stages of the film when his performance has to be delivered in fits and ticks. Much like “The Theory of Everything” itself, Redmayne’s commitment to capturing this character is a thing of beauty.
The Theory of Everything
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones and Tom Prior
Directed by James Marsh