What better way to open this year’s Cambridge Film Festival than with an exploration of one of its most famous residents? HAWKING is an intimate look at the life of the renowned physicist. Switching between his current hectic schedule of lectures and media appearances, and pottering through a history of his life to date, the film gives a polished overview of its remarkable subject and his defining achievements.
If you don’t know much about Hawking, his scientific work or his debilitating condition (beyond those well known cameos in Star Trek or The Simpsons), then Stephen Finnigan’s documentary is a neat way to cover the basics. So much is touched upon all too briefly that there is easily room for a much longer, more detailed examination of what really makes The World’s Greatest Scientist tick. This is the glossy, coffee table version of his life, approved and narrated by the man himself. As such, it was never going to dwell on the more uncomfortable parts of his past; his second marriage to one of his nurses is very quickly brushed over, while his scientific work is disappointingly boiled down to a few brief mentions of his groundbreaking theories on black holes and the Big Bang.
…a gifted but lazy student with a wicked sense of humour.
The book that launched him into the public arena, A Brief History of Time, is happily given more… well, time. The film sheds light on the apparently extensive rewrite process the book underwent, along with the life-threatening illness its author contracted during its early stages. The book’s staggering success, and the enormous pressure that fame subsequently visited on Hawking and his family, is also movingly related by his first wife Jane, who was forced to watch their lives change beyond recognition.
Yet the most captivating parts of the film are the stories of his youth as a boy and Oxford undergraduate, offering a ready portrayal of Hawking as a gifted but lazy student with a wicked sense of humour. It’s the closest the documentary comes to getting under his skin, giving a glimpse of might have been had the motor neurone disease not stolen away control of his body. The painful development of the condition, and how he has been forced to live with the spectre of death hanging over him for fifty years, inevitably crops up; as does the arrival of his now instantly recognisable voice software.
At the gala screening last night, Stephen Hawking was present along with several of the people interviewed in the film, including his sister Mary and colleagues from his time spent in California. In the post-film Q&A, they all happily related their own experiences of living and working with Hawking, and how they viewed his impact on the world at large. These interviews were interspersed with pre-recorded messages from well-wishing friends and fans around the world, including Morgan Freeman, Sir Richard Branson and (inevitably) the cast of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Both the film and the event were a well earned celebratory lap of honour, and there is surely no-one in the universe who would begrudge him that.
HAWKING screens again on the 21st at Cineworld at 16.00.