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the theory of everything    

Bill Goodykoontz/Arizona Republic    

“The Theory of Everything” breaks down simply, perhaps too much so: a great performance in a good movie.

Eddie Redmayne is stunning in his portrayal of Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS — more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It has crippled his body but spared his astounding mind, and director James Marsh and Redmayne are unsparing in the portrayal of that cruel dichotomy.

But it’s not just an exercise in trying to one-up Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot”-style acting. Where Redmayne really succeeds is in the little things, the arch of an eyebrow, the sparkle of an eye — pretty much anything with his eyes, really, because eventually they (and his trusty voice synthesizer) are the only means of communication left to him.

But the film is not just about Hawking. It’s about his relationship with his former wife, Jane, on whose memoir “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen” Anthony McCarten based his screenplay. The highs, lows and decided difficulties are approached with honesty; the guy may be one of the world’s great geniuses, but he was no piece of cake to live with, something that extends beyond his growing disability.

We first meet Stephen as a doctoral student at Cambridge, where he meets Jane (Felicity Jones) at a party he doesn’t quite seem to know how to navigate. She’s also a graduate student and is charmed (as are we) by his unkempt hair and ready smile. He challenges her, gently, on her belief in God. (“I’m busy on Sundays,” she tells him after he asks for a date. “Oh, right. Him,” he replies, looking upward.)

But they are a good fit, despite their differences.

Then Stephen receives his devastating diagnosis: The disease will kill him within two years.

Except it doesn’t. He will theorize about the beginning of time, chuck it for a boundless universe without beginning or end, delve into black holes, write “A Brief History of Time” (which has sold more than 10 million copies) and much more.

To the public, this is a remarkable achievement. It is around the house, too, but it’s also taxing on Jane, to say the least. She and Stephen have three children. (Does the disease affect everything, a friend asks, clearly meaning, you know, everything. “Different system,” Stephen replies.)

After resisting outside help, the Hawkings hire Jonathan (Charlie Cox), the director of the church choir Jane has joined in one of her rare not-caring-for-Stephen-and-the-kids activities. Jonathan’s wife has recently died, and he seems to appreciate Jane in ways that Stephen can’t (or maybe just won’t).

Meanwhile Stephen hires a woman (Maxine Peake) whose doting admiration and domineering attention excite him. Credit the filmmakers with not treating a story of overcoming adversity as a happy-ever-after fairy tale.

We don’t learn a lot about the actual science, however. Not that most of us would understand it. But from what we can tell, theorems and revolutionary ideas spring forth complete from Stephen’s brain, like perfect pieces of music from Mozart’s in the “Amadeus” version of things.

Jones is, in the obviously less showy role, pretty remarkable herself. There are moments when she is clearly exasperated, but when crisis strikes, it becomes obvious that her first role is to keep running the business that is Hawking Inc.

But there is no talking about this movie without talking about Redmayne’s performance. It would have been — not easy exactly, but easier to simply play the increasing physical struggles Stephen faced as the disease took hold. What is more difficult is holding on to that spark, not just of intellect and creativity, but of the impish mischief that Stephen has always been known for. Redmayne captures this, again, without overdoing it. You don’t get the idea you are watching an acting class. Instead you feel like you’re watching a man fight with all he has to retain what makes him him, even as the universe he seeks to understand tries to wrest it from him.



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