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'The Theory of Everything' review: Oscar-worthy performances

Felicity Jones stars as Jane Wilde and Eddie

Felicity Jones stars as Jane Wilde and Eddie Redmayne stars as Stephen Hawking in Academy Award winner James Marsh’s "The Theory of Everything," a Focus Features release. Credit: Focus Features

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones play Stephen Hawking and his wife, Jane Wilde, in "The Theory of Everything," and you couldn't hope to spend time with two fresher, more fetching faces. We meet Hawking and Wilde as Cambridge students, flush with youth and promise in the early 1960s. The actors even look rather alike, with toothy smiles and nearly matching hazel eyes, giving us a sense that these two were destined for each other.

They were, but their story is not made entirely of stardust. Hawking, at 21, was diagnosed with the motor neuron disease that would steadily rob him of nearly all voluntary movement. A doctor gives him two years to live and predicts: "Your thoughts won't be affected -- it's just that, eventually, no one will know what they are." Wilde married him anyhow.

Hawking defied that doctor, of course: He's still alive and world-renowned thanks to his 1988 book of layman's cosmology, "A Brief History of Time." Today, Hawking's wheelchair and computer-enabled voice are as iconic as Einstein's mustache and live-wire hair. (A Hawking send-up even appears in "Dumb and Dumber To.") Less familiar is the story of Jane, whose 2007 memoir is the basis for this movie.

Although "The Theory of Everything" touches on Hawking's complex theories of time and space, what drives the film is his slow deterioration and Jane's struggle to care for him and their children. This is rich material for the film's lead actors, and both are superb. Although Redmayne eventually uses only his eyes, we recognize his every emotion: joy, regret, even arousal. Jones, as a wife whose honeymoon period was over before it began, never strikes a false note.

It's a testament to this film's sensitivity and intelligence that its story, while somewhat formulaic, never feels accusatory or dreary. (Anthony McCarten wrote the script; the director is James Marsh, of the Oscar-winning documentary "Man on Wire.") Everyone here feels real and sympathetic, even two characters that represent temptation, a handsome widower (Charlie Cox) and a saucy caretaker (Maxine Peake). It's that human-scale notion of relativity that makes "The Theory of Everything" work so well.

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