Eddie Redmayne likely punches his ticket into the Best Actor race with his miraculous portrayal of brilliant physicist, cosmologist and author Stephen Hawking in James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything. It’s crass to automatically rush to awards conversation when discussing a new film entering the marketplace, but if we’re being honest, Theory is one of those prestige biopics that largely exists to ride the annual waves of Oscar chatter, and Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking is so impressive, it’d be wrong not to begin the conversation here.
The Theory of Everything is a romantic, artistic, sprawling yet beautiful story about a challenging love shared between noted genius Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) and his incredibly supportive spouse, Jane (Felicity Jones). I use the term “sprawling” because Theory attempts the near impossible – tracing the couple’s journey from its earliest stages in University (where they first meet) to the point where Hawking receives the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth the II.
Needless to say, that is a lifetime of achievements, accomplishments, accolades and arguments to condense into one manageable feature-length film. Luckily, The Theory of Everything landed in the capable hands of Oscar-winning documentarian James Marsh, whose brilliant features leading up to Theory include the fascinating Project Nim and the mesmerizing Man On Wire. Marsh’s experience in the editing room as a documentary filmmaker likely aided him in finding the flow and through-line for Theory. What else does a documentarian do but amass endless hours of footage (or, in the case of Hawking, years and years of brilliant scientific achievements), then whittle it down into the shape of a digestible account.
Because of the scope of Theory, though, portions of Stephen and Jane’s story can feel rushed, or abbreviated. With so many possible angles on which to focus, Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten pull select portions from Jane Hawking’s own autobiography. They focus on the duo’s courtship, and earliest days as a happy couple. They follow Stephen down the dusty corridors of his school as he begins to probe the intelligent questions that will trigger his research. We seem them build a family, and we watch each of them drift away from the marriage for emotional dalliances that, truthfully, need more time to breathe on screen. We realize that Theory has a lot of ground to cover – particularly when it comes to the disease that will define Stephen Hawking, to a large extent – but I often wished it would stop and stay focused on an interesting subplot or crucial plot point.
That being said, The Theory of Everything is never less than an intelligent love story that touches the heart by exploring the sacrifices both parties made to cope with Stephen’s debilitating disease. And it’s in that physical transformation that Eddie Redmayne elevates his game. An actor’s natural inclination might be to overact when faced with Hawking’s physical limitations. Redmayne, with some technical help from Marsh, never succumbs to the virtual straight jacket he’s wearing while performing as Hawking. The gradual decline of his motor skills simply becomes a new tool the actor can bring to the movie, whether it’s during a dinner scene, a romantic interlude, or a fantastic digression where Hawking dreams of being able to shed his wheelchair and pick up a pencil that has fallen to the ground.
Yes, the Academy LOVES to reward actors who look like Redmayne when they sacrifice their on-screen appearance for the good of a part. But reducing Redmayne’s portrayal to an Oscar-reaching parlor trick is dismissive and unfair. His transformation, physically and internally, into Hawking is flat- out mesmerizing. He is stunning. This is one of the year's greatest performances, and I believe Redmayne currently is the one to beat in the Best Actor category. It will be interesting to see if Redmayne, alone, carries Theory into multiple Oscar categories, or if the stately biopic will end up being a one-man show come awards time.