Eddie Redmayne does something extraordinary in “The Theory of Everything.” Playing the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who was diagnosed with a crippling disease at 21 that gradually made him lose control of his muscles, Redmayne makes you forget you’re watching an actor put himself through punishing contortions. He keeps you focused on the soul of a man trapped inside a malfunctioning body, a genius who had so much to offer to the world that he refused to give up long after most of us would have surrendered.
This sort of role is catnip for actors, who love to have something physical to do while they’re reciting their dialogue. But Redmayne (“Les Miserables,” “My Week with Marilyn”) approaches the part from the inside out instead of the other way around. The more difficult everyday life becomes for Hawking, the more Redmayne uses his eyes and tortured voice to prevent us from falling into a pity trap.
Even after Hawking loses his ability to speak, Redmayne remains vital and aware: He’s able to communicate what the scientist was thinking without being able to rely on normal facial expressions. His performance is a marvel, on par with Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot,” except the difficulty level is even higher here. You forget you’re watching a healthy, normal actor. Redmayne manages to act even with his feet.
The “Theory of Everything” is based on the 2008 memoir “Travelling to Infinity” by Jane Hawking (played memorably in the film by an equally expressive Felicity Jones), who married Stephen in 1965, after he was diagnosed and given two years to live. This is the revised, second version of Jane’s memoir, which was written after she and Stephen had made peace (the original version, published in 1999, was much more scathing and condemning).
Director James Marsh (“Man on Wire,” “Project Nim”) keeps the focus on their marriage, which spawned three children, instead of on Stephen’s dense work, making the movie accessible to the casual viewer and emphasizing the man’s humanity instead of his achievements. Unlike “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which used wondrous imagery to convey the imagination of stroke victim Jean-Dominique Bauby as he wrote a book solely by blinking his left eye to a secretary, “The Theory of Everything” remains grounded in a burnished reality. Here is a movie that can get away with that hoary cliché of two young lovebirds looking up at a spectacular fireworks show and make it mean something: You’ve seen that shot a million times, before, but here it feels fresh and exhilarating, because Stephen is still healthy, and you know their budding romance is about to hit a huge hurdle.
Like “The King’s Speech” or “Shakespeare in Love,” “The Theory of Everything” sometimes feels a bit too polished and precise, leaving no room for ambiguity and always staying easy to digest, like elegant pap. When Jane starts spending a lot of time with a family friend, played by Harry Lloyd, the movie immediately lets us know their relationship is strictly platonic instead of making their bond a little more opaque. The screenplay, by Anthony McCarten, could have also explored the friction between Stephen, an atheist, and Jane, a devout Catholic, in deeper detail.
But despite the vague Masterpiece Theater aura of Oscar-bait importance, “The Theory of Everything” leaves a deep mark thanks to Redmayne. His uncanny performance does justice to the real-life Hawking, who is now 72 and completely paralyzed but still alive and kicking, a real-life miracle in a world that could use more of them.
“THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING,” starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Harry Lloyd, David Thewlis, Michael Marcus and Emily Watson. Directed by James Marsh. Written by Anthony McCarten. Based on the book by Jane Hawking. A Focus Features release. Rated PG-13 for brief vulgar language and adult themes. Running time: 123 minutes.