Documentary Film Review

Theory of a Film Review: Hawking (2013)

November 19, 2013Ben MK

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A brief history of a beautiful mind

Long considered one of the brightest minds of the 20th century, Professor Stephen Hawking has authored several books on the fields of physics and cosmology and has himself been the subject of countless articles, books and television specials. The simply-titled documentary, Hawking -- the second film about the iconic man of science to bear his name -- is loosely based on his own personal memoir, My Brief History, and is an intimate look at the man, his personal life and his work.

Narrated by Hawking himself, director Stephen Finnigan's film touches on all aspects of the famous scientist's life. Featuring candid footage and interviews with those who have lived and worked with him, as well as reenactments of key moments in his life, it attempts to paint a complete portrait of a man whose work many may know of but who himself remains somewhat of an enigma.

Born in Oxford, England in 1942, 300 years to the day after the death of Galileo, Hawking grew up without an inkling of the greatness that he was eventually destined for. Although he was intellectually talented and naturally inquisitive, he was also averse to studying and preferred the company of friends over schoolbooks. All of that changed, however, during his final year at University College, when he began exhibiting strange symptoms and was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as ALS. With the rapid onset of the disease, doctors estimated that he had only a few years to live. However, as time went on, the progression of the disease slowed, and he soon went on to pursue a PhD at Cambridge. Over 50 years after his initial diagnosis, Hawking is still actively touring and lecturing. He attributes his longevity, in part, to finding "something to live for" after meeting and falling in love with his first wife, Jane, which was the turning point in his life that allowed him to "find his trajectory" as a world-renowned physicist and pioneer in the field of theoretical cosmology.

At times, however, that trajectory has veered closer to the path of celebrity than anything else. In addition to discussing Hawking's work, theories and upbringing --  via interviews with family, graduate students and collaborators -- the film explores his status as a pop culture figure -- his appearances of The Simpsons, Star Trek: The Next Generation and on late night TV -- and delves into the effect that notoriety has had on his personal life. Although he embraced the spotlight (as evidenced by his participation in the film itself), it ultimately led to the breakdown of his first marriage. His second marriage, to his longtime nurse, fared no better. However, the film is quick to remind us, that despite any problems in his personal life, he remains surrounded by people who adore him. In fact, if there's a message that the film succeeds in getting across, it's that he's an ordinary man who has overcome extraordinary odds and, thanks to his own drive and the support of friends and family, has been able to make the most of his innate talent. Perhaps that is why he continues to be a point of inspiration and fascination for people the world over.

The Bottom Line

Hawking is a condensed look at the man and the myth, told with a wry sense of humor in his own words and those of the people closest to him. For those who may only know him for his extensive body of work, the film is an eye-opening revelation of his equally captivating personal story, his strengths and his frailties. But regardless of one's familiarity with the name, it's simply an inspirational tale of courage and genius. [★★★½]

* Reviewer's Note: Hawking is playing for one week only at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, beginning on November 29th.

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