By all accounts, Eddie Redmayne is a completely healthy 32-year-old actor. You’d never know it, though, to watch his powerful and utterly transformative turn as physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Not since Dustin Hoffman gave autistic savants a Hollywood face in 1988’s Rain Man (and perhaps since even before) has an actor turned in a performance so convincing.
Based on ex-wife Jane Hawking’s autobiography, The Theory of Everything tracks Hawking from the day he and Jane met-cute at Cambridge in 1963 and concludes with the publication of his 1988 bestseller A Brief History of Time.
It’s a movie full of heartbreak, elation, tragedy, and joy, and every second of it is magnificently directed by James Marsh. It’s also powered by two of the best on-screen performances this year. Alongside Redmayne is relative unknown (at least in the U.S.) actress Felicity Jones as Jane. And what starts as a simple, radiant smile from across a college common room quickly develops into a portrayal that comes close to overshadowing even Redmayne in its power and brilliance.
The challenge facing screenwriter Anthony McCarten was not only making doctoral-level talk about quantum physics and relativity interesting and relatable but also taking a story whose major plot points we know (Hawking gets diagnosed with ALS, marries Jane, write his book) and somehow keeping us emotionally invested. McCarten succeeds with flying colors. To watch early on as Hawking’s early tics progress into a full-blown degenerative disease is a powerful and mesmerizing journey. And through it all, Jane is right by his side with the patience of Job.
Marsh is at the top of his game. Whether it’s in the absolute silence of the moment when Hawking gets his diagnosis or during the simple, quiet moment when Hawking sees a glowing fireplace ember and makes a scientific breakthrough, Marsh’s use of color, focus, light, and sound is at once astounding and captivating.
Even though you can’t help shake the occasional notion that some moments are being glossed over, sanitized, or sugar-coated, there are still plenty of raw, heart-wrenching gut-punches and exhilarating triumphs to make The Theory of Everything an almost perfect example of why we go to the movies.