Stephen Hawking is known as the brilliant physicist who slumps in a wheelchair and speaks through a computer-generated voice. In The Theory of Everything, we first meet the Brit when he’s a still gawky university student bicycling wildly through the streets of Cambridge.  

He’s already brilliant, however. That becomes obvious when a professor assigns his class a series of 10 questions, “each more impregnable than the last.” Though his fellow students are stymied, Stephen returns with the correct and densely complex equations scribbled on the back of a railway schedule.   

Directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire), The Theory of Everything is based on a book written by the scientist’s first wife, Jane Hawking. That helps to explain why it’s more interested in Stephen Hawking the husband and family man than in Stephen Hawking the scientist.  

In the first half, both sides of his life are pretty well integrated. 

When Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) first meets a pretty foreign-language student named Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) at a party, he calls himself as a cosmologist. Asked to explain, he describes cosmology as a religion for “intelligent atheists.”  

When the devoutly Christian Jane pushes him for more details on his spiritual beliefs, Stephen claims he worships an equation that explains everything in the universe. It’s an equation that is not yet known, but he’s determined to discover it. 

Both Redmayne and Jones are engaging in these early scenes. Redmayne’s Stephen is at once charming and socially inept, while Jones’s Jane is warm and intelligent. It’s not hard to believe these two would be attracted to each other despite their differences. 

Their blossoming romance is put to the test when Stephen begins feeling the first effects of motor neuron disease, a degenerative condition related to Lou Gehrig’s disease. After a doctor tells Stephen he has no more than two years to live, he sinks into a black hole of despair and is brought out only by Jane’s stubborn refusal to desert the man she’s just begun to love.  

The two co-stars continue to shine as the movie details the couple’s long marriage, which yields three children and is complicated by Stephen’s ever-worsening condition. Redmayne is particularly spot-on in his depiction of both Stephen’s physical limitations and his seemingly cheerful acceptance of those physical limitations.  

Yet it’s hard not to feel that director Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten are dumbing things down in the movie’s second half, and not just by all but ignoring Stephen’s continuing scientific inquiries. In its attempt to paint an uplifting portrait of Stephen and Jane’s lives, the flick also downplays the emotional traumas they face. The upshot is that when a handsome choir director (Charlie Cox) and a devoted nurse (Maxine Peake) suddenly appear, we’re unprepared for the resulting complications.  

Stephen Hawking is a living genius and a symbol of human resilience. Jane Hawking is the woman whose steadfast support gave him the strength to persevere. Their story is so singular that it deserves to be told in an equally singular manner.  

By taking an approach that makes their tale accessible to the widest possible audience, The Theory of Everything ultimately shortchanges both its subjects and the talented actors who play them.  

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5) 

The Theory of Everything, rated PG-13, opens Wednesday (Nov. 26) in theaters nationwide.