Credit: Liam Daniel

The 32-year-old British actor Eddie Redmayne has been performing on stage and in movies for the past dozen years. But aside from a couple of close calls after My Week With Marilyn and Les Misérables, he’s never quite gotten that final nudge into full-fledged stardom. That’s about to change. His fearless, flawless performance as Stephen Hawking in James Marsh’s moving new biopic, The Theory of Everything, is on par with Daniel Day-Lewis’ in My Left Foot.

Hawking, the physicist who achieved a fluky sort of pop culture fame in the late ’80s as the bard of black holes, suffers from a debilitating motor-neuron disease similar to ALS that has confined him to a wheelchair for most of his adult life. But in the movie we are introduced to him before his affliction takes hold, when he’s just an awkwardly charming Ph.D. student at Cambridge in the 1960s, with a mischievous smile, a mop of ginger hair, and nerdy Buddy Holly glasses. At a mixer, he meets and falls in love with a radiant poetry student named Jane (Felicity Jones). Then darkness falls, quickly and pitilessly.

The cruelest irony is that at the very moment when Hawking’s mind was exploding with radically expansive new ideas, his physical world was collapsing in on him. But he and Jane refuse to let the disease derail their life, and he remains steadfast in his pursuit of a theory about the universe that will alter the course of science. Though the film is conventionally structured and bathed in a for-your-consideration sheen, Redmayne’s astonishing transformation lends a touch of magic to the material. Even when he’s in a wheelchair, his torso twisted, his limbs gnarled, and his ability to speak severely limited, the actor conveys Hawking’s genius and humanity (not to mention his crackling wit). It’s like watching an escape artist who’s bound and gagged break free from a straitjacket. What Redmayne does is breathtaking—and it never feels like a performance. In a much less showy role, Jones does her own heartbreaking work as the woman who dedicated her life to loving and caring for Hawking. With nuance and grace, she summons the pain and frustration that were by-products of that commitment.

And yet I couldn’t help wishing that The Theory of Everything had more theory. Hawking famously excels at explaining complicated thoughts with layman simplicity, but the film never translates the originality and depth of his ideas—or even what they are. Marsh asks us to buy the beauty of Hawking’s mind on faith. He’s lucky he’s got Redmayne to do his selling. B+

The Theory of Everything
  • Movie
  • 123 minutes