By Dana Barbuto
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Eddie Redmayne (“Les Miserables”) doesn’t just portray Stephen Hawking in the biopic “The Theory of Everything,” he fiercely becomes the legendary British physicist. It’s pure bravura. Redmayne goes deep behind those black-framed glasses and inhabits Hawking on an emotional level, touching the soul of the man who slowly lost the function of his body and voice to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.


The disease might have taken his body, but it didn’t stop his mind. Given only two years to live upon diagnosis when he was a young Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge, Hawking went on to defy that death sentence, and is still alive at age 72. He’s become arguably the world’s greatest theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author of the groundbreaking book “A Brief History of Time.”


The film, the first feature from Oscar-winning documentarian James Marsh (“Man on a Wire”), paints a moving example of love conquering all. Based on a memoir (“Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen”) by Hawking’s first wife, Jane, it comes as no surprise that his better half is portrayed as a devoted wife whose unconditional love gives her husband the strength to survive. It’s the old, “behind every great man is a woman” cliche.


But in this case, it feels utterly true. As the winsome Jane, Felicity Jones (“Like Crazy”) achieves the nuance and pathos others have raved about in her previous performances. She’s both delightful as a young arts student in love and heartbreaking as the put-upon mother of three and main caretaker of a deteriorating Hawking.


The film opens as the couple meets cute at a college mixer. It’s love at first sight, even though he’s “strange” and wears funny bow ties. Their yin-and-yang relationship is established early: She’s artsy, he’s scientific. He’s sarcastic; she spends Sundays at church. She’s proper and pretty; he’s goofy and gangly. Their first kiss is the night of the spring ball under a sky full of glistening stars. You swoon.


Soon after, the symptoms of muscle deterioration appear, and Redmayne is fantastic at depicting it via contorting limbs, gnarled fingers and an unsteady gait that ultimately leaves him face-planted on the quad before ending up in the emergency room. Marsh, working from a script by Anthony McCarten, pulls off the daunting task of making the film less about illness and science and more about the man — and woman.


Never lost in the telling is Hawking’s outsized sense of playfulness and humor and the Herculean sacrifice Jane makes when she said “I do.” Love didn’t conquer all, however, as the couple eventually amicably divorced in 1995. Together or apart, however, the film belongs to Redmayne, who delivers a star turn that’s sure to be remembered come Oscar time.


He’s nothing short of amazing, transforming from a man full of life and promise to walking with one cane, then two, until being confined to a wheelchair and spoonfed soft food after a tracheotomy steals his ability to speak. Redmayne is strongest when he can’t give voice to his character. His eyes and expressions speak volumes, even before communicating via that iconic voice synthesizer.


Charlie Cox as Jonathan Hellyer Jones is endearing as the handsome choirmaster who inserts himself into the family to lend a hand. Maxine Peake plays Elaine Mason, the nurse who called the now-mute Hawking “the most brilliant man she ever met.” It’s with these two characters that the movie gets a bit schmaltzy. But that’s just a minor shortcoming that never detracts from Redmayne’s grand performance.


In the opening scenes, Marsh trains his camera on Redmayne, zigging and zagging while riding a bicycle through the Cambridge campus. He’s so fluid, full of speed and movement. By the film’s end, that image becomes even more meaningful as does the line Hawking later recites: “While there is life, there is hope.”


Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.


PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material. Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney and Christian McKay. Grade: A-.