Eddie Redmayne won his Oscar from his first Oscar nomination for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.
Eddie Redmayne is not a favorite actor of mine, and he has given at least one downright terrible performance in The Good Shepherd. Even his best work prior to playing Hawking, Les Miserables, still came with a few odd facial reactions to bring his performance down, which I suppose was a trademark of his early performances. Thankfully the odd reactions are gone in his performance as Stephen Hawking, although that might be due to one reason, but I will get to that later on in this review. The film begins with Stephen Hawking working towards his doctoral thesis while beginning a romance with a fellow student Jane (Felicity Jones). Redmayne performance is relatively simple in these scenes. He has a nice enough charm in his performance that is naturally part of his whole somewhat shy and retiring academic type. In addition Redmayne and Jones are good together. They project a natural sweetness in the romance between Stephen and Jane which works quite well in an understated sort of fashion.
Despite being called the Theory of Everything, there is not a great deal of time spent in having Redmayne actually try to portray any sort of genius in Hawking. It is not that Redmayne avoids portraying this or is in anyway inadequate at this, but rather the way the film chooses to present this. There basically is the standard scene of writing on the chalkboard and that's about it. Even the theories when presented are for the most part explained by other characters rather than Hawking. Redmayne is convincing in the little he has to do, but the film asks very little of him in this regard. What the film does focus on is when Stephen Hawking is diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and told he has only two years to live. Redmayne is very effective in portraying Hawking's initial reaction. He expresses well the way Hawking withdraws into almost nothing into his depression, and is very good as he lashes out expressing Hawking's anger over the lot in life he has been given. Along with his emotional distress though Hawking begins to show the signs of the disease.
The physical and verbal depiction of Hawking's disease easily could have easily lead to some terrible overacting. Well thankfully that is not that case here. Redmayne takes Hawking's speech, before he eventually loses his voice due to surgery, and is very effective in how he slurs his delivery that becomes more intense as well as less comprehensible. Redmayne makes it feel absolutely genuine and does well to never use it to a point in which he over accentuates it. Redmayne is equally good in portraying the loss of his physical abilities as he starts to lose his ability to walk and move freely. Redmayne effectively shows going from a limp, as well as some difficultly in maneuvering normally, to the point of not even being able to keep his body in the right shape. Redmayne does not let being put in the wheelchair finish his performance either. He still shows how it frankly does not stop as he can't sit up, and he even loses his ability to keep his mouth straight, perhaps that spares us the strange reactions. To be fair though every body contortion feels genuine in Redmayne's performance and he most of all is terrific in portraying exactly what the disease does to him over time.
Now portraying Hawking's disability is the highlight of Redmayne's performance. He is good though in portraying early on how Jane's involvement in his life causes him to develop a passion to work and live again. He also importantly never portrays that to be the end of Hawking's depression though as it returns brutally when Hawking loses his ability to speak. There is also one scene where Jane has her future second husband come over to their house, and Redmayne is very effective at first by expressing Hawking's dismay at this development. Of course even this is brushed aside when Hawking just views him as someone there to help. The problem is other than those few things Hawking is not developed into all that much of a character. He has his theories, his wife, and his disability and unfortunately they kind of call it a day. The film refuses to ever portray Hawking in much of a negative light, and leaves him in the end to be a bit too simplistic of a character. This is all the writing though and not at all Redmayne's fault. When there is a chance for depth, Redmayne takes it, there unfortunately are few of them.
For awhile the film even kinda shoves Hawking aside mostly to view how Jane sees him, which sure it gives Jones some time to shine, and keeps Hawking as too much of a constant. The biggest failure in this regard is the depiction of Hawking's relationship with his second wife. They portray her as kinda a problematic usurper, but seem to purposefully avoid putting any blame onto Hawking in these scenes. The film instead just makes it something he just has to do, which is unfortunate because it does kind of go around the fact that Hawking leaves Jane by his own volition. Redmayne is great in the goodbye scene as he is moving in portraying Hawking's emotional breakdown, it's a shame the film was not able to make it mean little more. Almost all of my complaints though are really due to the screenplay not Eddie Redmayne's performance. Redmayne gives a very good performance and there are times that he is exceptional, in fact the overarching way in which he becomes Hawking certainly is that. I would have liked if the film had let him delve a bit more into the man past simply his accomplishments and his disability, nevertheless this is truly fine work by Eddie Redmayne.