Stephen Hawking is part of an elite group in human history, one of those people who has led us to perceive our universe in new and different ways, throwing out old suppositions and embracing exciting, uncharted realities.
His innovations and refusal to subscribe to outdated modes of thinking merely underscore the utter conventionality of his film biography, “The Theory of Everything.” Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (adapting Jane Hawking’s memoir “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen”) and director James Marsh (“Shadow Dancer”) successfully explain the finer points of quantum physics and the origins of the universe in an audience-friendly way, but they also make the courtship, marriage and travails of the Hawkings feel standard-issue, even when their actual lives were anything but.
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One would think this was a generic British World War II drama, what with all the brave women holding chins aloft as their eyes fill up with tears, and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score periodically welling up triumphantly in a manner that suggests that the film is patting itself on the back.
When we first encounter Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) in the early ’60s, he’s a slightly awkward but thoroughly brilliant graduate student; upon meeting Jane (Felicity Jones) at a party, he informs her that his goal is to create one unifying theory that will explain all the forces of the universe.
They make a wonderfully mismatched couple — he’s an atheist scientist, she’s a devout Anglican pursuing a PhD in medieval poetry — and their chemistry pops even before Marsh surrounds them with twinkly lights and fireworks at a school dance. (During that event, Stephen regales Jane with a scientific discussion about white shirts, Tide detergent, and the birth and death of stars that plays as both genuinely nerdy and thoroughly romantic.)
When he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease at the age of 21 and given just two more years to live, Stephen tries to drive Jane away, but she’s too strong for that, devotedly staying by his side and marrying him. His condition slowly deteriorates, allowing Redmayne to do the kind of external performance that sends awards-giving bodies into a tizzy. And while his fame in the world of science grows, Jane finds herself (and her academic ambitions) worn out by the duties of taking care of not only her debilitated husband but also their three children.
The film is not without humor: after Hawking loses the power of speech and gets his famous talking computer, Jane notes with surprise that it makes him sound American, and subsequent scenes feature Hawking trying out famous lines from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Doctor Who” in his new mechanical “voice.”
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Even without all the facial and bodily contortions that the character demands, Redmayne gives a thoroughly captivating performance; he presents Hawking, at all stages of his life, as the kind of person whose brain never stops working. Even when betrayed by his own body, Hawking’s mind races onward, and you can see it in the glint in Redmayne’s eyes.
Jones, so often cast as the wispy ingénue, reveals a real strength here, playing a character who’s not merely reactive but takes full control over her own life and that of her family. The film’s feelings about Jane’s ambitions and duties often seem muddled — her mother (played by Emily Watson) doesn’t recommend a nurse or nanny to relieve Jane’s stress, but rather a stint in the church choir — but at least there’s an acknowledgment that Stephen’s accomplishments probably wouldn’t have happened without Jane’s tireless devotion.
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If “The Theory of Everything” breaks the mold a bit, it’s in the acknowledgment that even the greatest love stories have the occasional bump in the road, as each Hawking enjoys an extra-marital flirtation — her with a kindly choir director and occasional caregiver (Charlie Cox) and him with a saucy speech therapist (Maxine Peake).
That’s about the only deviation from the standard formula that this movie can offer; otherwise we get “forward-thinking man of science” crossed with “great man bravely endures physical infirmity” from start to finish. It’s “Everything” you’ve seen in other movies, and that you would have predicted you’d see in this one.