Hollywood, like Stephen Hawking, has a theory of everything, at least in the run-up to Oscar night in February. To compete successfully for major Academy Awards, a film should be a true-life portrait of an exceptional man who struggles in a noble quest against impossible odds. After A Beautiful Mind, Milk, The King’s Speech and Lincoln, the Great Man Theory flourishes anew in two biopics about brilliant Cambridge mathematicians with phenomenal achievements despite physical and social impediments. The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing, the gay genius who helped win World War II by breaking Germany’s Enigma code, opens Nov. 28 and will earn awards galore for its star, Benedict Cumberbatch. For now, we have Hawking’s tale, The Theory of Everything.
Struck by motor neuron disease at 23 and given just two years to live, Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) has survived and thrived for another half-century, in large part because of the loving care of his wife Jane (Felicity Jones). Directed by James Marsh and written by Anthony McCarten from Jane’s 2007 memoir, the film both adheres to and gently upends the conventions of the Great Man genre.
For a movie about the author of A Brief History of Time, this is a doggedly chronological retelling of Stephen and Jane’s 30-year marriage. Theory finds its saving nuances in the story of a vigorous young man transformed by disease into his wife’s invalid child. Bodily degeneration is one scientific fact Stephen ignores with a mulish cheerfulness, even as he takes for granted Jane’s delaying of her own scholarly goals in order to tend and fend for him. (She eventually earned a Ph.D. in medieval Spanish poetry.) He can grasp the complexities of the cosmos more easily than he can Jane’s need for male friendship with her choirmaster Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox). And as Stephen’s view of the universe evolves, so does his take on the immutability of marriage. A pretty nurse (Maxine Peake) can have that effect on a theory.
Although Marsh, who won an Oscar for his documentary Man on Wire, overdoes the visual fireworks, he’s attentive to telling domestic details that let his actors breathe inside their characters. Redmayne, himself a Cambridge grad, splendidly reveals both Stephen’s grand resolve and peculiar blind spots. But the film gives Jones (Oxford) a chance to take control of its emotional center, and she seizes it with spectacular subtlety. She proves that behind this Great Man movie is a woman–an actress–who’s every bit her man’s equal.
This appears in the November 17, 2014 issue of TIME.