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The Theory of Everything wants Stephen Hawking to break your heart

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything
Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything
The Theory of Everything
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The Theory of Everything, James Marsh's biopic about the indomitable Stephen Hawking, isn't a movie concerned with the scientist's contributions to theoretical physics or cosmology. Rather, the movie is a sharp, convincing look at something that isn't found in the footnotes of his research or his grand scientific breakthroughs — his love for his first wife, Jane.

Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten used Jane Hawking's memoir, Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, as the basis of the film, which begins by introducing us to a portrait of the theoretical physicist as a young graduate student, played by the disarming Eddie Redmayne. We're dropped into a Cambridge mixer in 1963, and witness love at first sight when nerd-handsome Hawking meets the charming Jane Wilde, played Felicity Jones. And we see how their relationship blossoms, and then how their love bends and cracks after Hawking's devastating diagnosis with Lou Gehrig's disease.

Redmayne has the more elaborate role of the two leads, as he tells Hawking's story of physical deterioration with limps, tremors, jagged steps, and broken speech, until all he's left to work with are his eyes. His performance is potent — he instills clarity and emotion, fully conveying the weight of Hawking's life sentence.

Jones's role isn't made to crackle like Redmayne's, but there's a transformation, albeit a quieter one, there too. Jane begins bright-eyed and prim, which gives way to tempered grit and graceful endurance, with Stephen's disease willing itself upon her.

And that's where the film is at its best — when it shows the toll of love, and how Hawking's condition makes that toll all the more expensive. Stephen's disease, as his doctor tells him, will essentially make him a prisoner in his own, failing body. He also tells Stephen that he will only live for two more years. Marsh and McCarten aren't afraid to explore, with darkness and honesty, what the Hawkings experienced when those two years became five, then 10, then 20 and so on.

Love is patient, the Hawkings show us. But it changes.

While Marsh and McCarten are thoughtful in plumbing the chewy emotions that constitute love and marriage, the same attention isn't paid to depicting Hawking's work. The scenes about Hawking's science are fleeting scribbles on a chalkboard, cuts of professors declaring his theories garbage or splendid, and some close-ups of milk swirling in black coffee — a symbol of time and space. Hawking's science becomes montage fodder, which is a shame.

The Theory of Everything isn't perfect. And perhaps Hawking's life is too expansive, and his science too burly, to really capture the "everything" this man means. But Jones and Redmayne are dazzling, and the things this movie does well are worth watching.

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