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Review: Stephen Hawking biopic stresses family, not science

Felicity Jones is Jane Wilde, Stephen Hawking’s first wife, and Eddie Redmayne is the astrophysicist in “The Theory of Everything.”
Felicity Jones is Jane Wilde, Stephen Hawking’s first wife, and Eddie Redmayne is the astrophysicist in “The Theory of Everything.” Focus Features

Highlighted by an extraordinary performance by Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything” offers an easy introduction to Stephen Hawking for people curious about the brilliant astrophysicist but intimidated by the whole “astrophysicist” thing.

More of a romance and domestic drama than a chronicle of Hawking’s professional success, “Everything” is highly accessible. Yet as much as the film’s glancing treatment of the “A Brief History of Time” author’s research is a relief (at least for people who saw “Interstellar”), it also is a bit of a letdown. It just seems a film about Hawking, whose mind has thrived despite the ALS-related motor neuron disease that disabled his body, should be bigger than this.

But you can’t have everything. And the story of how Hawking (Redmayne, from “Les Misérables”) and his former wife, Jane (Felicity Jones, from “The Invisible Woman”) met at Cambridge, fell in love and together battled his diagnosis and ensuing physical struggles, holds more universal appeal than a physics-heavy story.

Especially with Redmayne giving such a dynamic, committed performance. “Everything” comes from Jane Hawking’s 2007 memoir, but according to what catches the eye on screen, which is always Redmayne, this is still Stephen Hawking’s story.

Redmayne plays the same guy throughout the movie. It’s Stephen’s circumstances that change.

The actor creates a through-line from Stephen’s days as a cosmology student at Cambridge (the film was shot partly on campus), where he walked with friends and danced with Jane, to later scenes in which the physicist uses a wheelchair and communicates through a speech synthesizer.

Even before Stephen is diagnosed, at age 21 in 1963, something is off in Redmayne’s bearing. It’s not just the foot that sometimes turns unnaturally inward. There is a hint of effort, of a wince, in the bright smiles Stephen offers Jane when they meet. This effort foretells the grimace that will become a key indicator of what Stephen feels once his movement becomes limited.

The fierceness that radiates from Redmayne’s eyes, broadcasting intelligence and determination, remains consistent throughout, even as the actor’s performance becomes more remarkable for its physicality. Redmayne shows grit, and also fear for the future, during a scene in which Stephen tries to move his mostly prone body up a flight of stairs.

You can tell in this scene that director James Marsh, who made the great 2008 documentary “Man on Wire” about another unstoppable force – the tightrope walker Philippe Petit – admires his lead character’s fortitude. But the scene also underscores Stephen’s stubbornness.

“Theory of Everything,” thankfully, does not paint Stephen as a saint. Out of pride, Stephen puts too much pressure on Jane, who must care for him and their two young children (they eventually have three). Jane wants outside help, but Stephen resists.

Jane is portrayed as almost saintlike, and thus loses audience interest at moments. Jones’ performance is somewhat hard to gauge because she’s playing a woman whose job, as a caretaker, can seem thankless. But it is not just the role. Though Jones is never less than sympathetic, she does not register strongly on screen.

That Redmayne sometimes outshines her is to be expected, since Stephen is the star of the family and Jane’s focus. But Charlie Cox (“Boardwalk Empire), who plays a church choir director who becomes Stephen’s volunteer helper and Jane’s crush, also exudes more charisma than Jones.

“Theory” follows Stephen through the triumph of his Cambridge Ph.D. thesis on space-time singularity, seemingly mostly to demonstrate how Hawking kept pushing in the years just after his diagnosis. But once the Hawkings start having children, the movie focuses more on domestic logistics than Stephen’s work.

More updates on his career would have been helpful, if only to judge the degree of truth in Stephen’s assertion, years into his renown, that he cannot afford to bring in professional help to ease Jane’s burden.

Benoit Delhomme’s luminous cinematography compensates visually at times for the film’s lack of “a-ha!” scientific moments. The gauzy lighting enhancing scenes of Jane’s and Stephen’s courtship, the sunlight that emanates through windows and skylights, a spiral staircase shot from the ground up – these visuals combine to suggest endless possibilities beyond our terrestrial constraints.

Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox

Director: James Marsh

123 minutes

Rated PG-13 (some thematic elements and suggestive material)

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