Hawking’s history dramatized in The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything, the screen adaptation of Jane Hawking’s memoir about her life with renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, is something of an unbeatable combination: It’s extremely well-made, extremely well-acted, and it’s based on a true story — one that involves physical and emotional hardship. In short, prime Oscar bait.

What’s refreshing, however, is that director James Marsh and screenwriter/ producer Anthony McCarten manage, for the most part, to sidestep easy sentiment. Make no mistake: The Theory of Everything is undeniably a tearjerker. The film pushes all the right buttons, and despite a tendency toward the genteel, avoids pushing the wrong ones.

The film dramatizes the relationship between Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones), who met cute in Cambridge in the early 1960s, shortly before Stephen was diagnosed with neuro-muscular disease (Lou Gehrig’s disease). With Jane’s help and support in those early years, Stephen was able to outlive his diagnosis by 50 years (and counting). His brilliant mind was confined but never trapped.

Redmayne brings an appealingly gawky energy and charm to his early scenes before embarking on a convincing and heartbreaking embodiment of Stephen’s physical decline. He so resembles the real Hawking that it’s easy to forget we’re watching an actor. Stephen Hawking is, after all, a worldwide celebrity — in a field that boasts only a handful of them. Jones is equally impressive as Jane, who initially seems a demure English rose but possesses a will every bit as equal as her husband’s. The couple’s ultimate break-up (they divorced in 1990) is handled with tact and intelligence.

Redmayne and Jones so dominate the proceedings — hardly inappropriate, it’s their story, after all — that most of the other actors are relegated to the sidelines, though David Thewlis is in particularly good form as Stephen’s academic mentor. Charlie Cox plays the widowed choirmaster who would become Jane’s second husband, Maxine Peake the friendly nurse who becomes Stephen’s second wife, Emily Watson turns up all too briefly as Jane’s “veddy” British mum, and Simon McBurney, often cast in sneering roles, enjoys a turn for the nice as Stephen’s father.

The “flashback recap” just before the end credits is almost a reminder to viewers — and, one can’t help but assume, Academy voters — what they’ve just watched. It seems a little calculated, but come Oscar night we’ll know for sure if it was effective. !