‘This film is a personal journey through my life, told in my own words.’
A Brief History of Stephen Hawking might be a more appropriate title for this fascinating documentary about the life and work of the scientist Stephen Hawking, who co-wrote this film (with Ben Bowie and director Stephen Finnigan). Narrated by its subject in what has become the most recognisable computerised voice in the world (indeed we learn about how this ground-breaking technology developed in Silicon Valley, California), Professor Hawking kindly announces, ‘Welcome to my world’. At the risk of being pedantic, given Hawking’s field of research, perhaps we should be welcomed to his universe. Or at least ‘Time and space and the laws that cover the universe.’
Hawking is an autobiography that is balanced, engaging, emotional and humorous as Professor Hawking tells the story of his fascinating life and academic career. He and his family recount stories of his early life, how his family encouraged academic pursuits and how he became interested in science. He won a place at Oxford University at the age of just seventeen, but studied for only about 1000 hours in order to achieve his first degree, noting that ‘One of my favourite pastimes at Oxford was partying,’ as the bravura of youth, romance, drink and dance mixed with occasional physics. However, he soon realised that he wanted to pursue an academic career, won a place at Cambridge University and buckled down to some serious postgraduate research in cosmology. Aside from his astonishing academic achievements, about which he is rather modest, Hawking has lived with motor neurone disease for most of his adult life and his battle with the disease is documented with great honesty here. When he was initially diagnosed, he was given three years to live but has outlived that diagnosis by nearly 50 further years. The film uses extensive interviews with his friends and family, most notably with his first wife, Jane, who recalls how they fell in love and how they coped with Hawking’s need to progress his career as well as the increasing demands his health put on the family. Alongside the stories of Hawking’s professional and personal life, there are some wonderful asides to his status as a media personality – from his appearance on The Simpsons to opening the Paralympic Games in 2012. There is also a sequence on how his book A Brief History of Time was conceived, written and edited and how it became a bestseller. Hawking’s contribution to popularising science cannot be underestimated.
Hawking is a fascinating look at the life of its subject using interviews with his colleagues, friends and family as well as contemporary footage and photographs, with additional scenes that have been recreated with actors where no source material exists. On the downside, there are aspects to this life story that are not given the detail you would perhaps wish for. From a personal perspective some of the family elements with his children and second wife are glossed over but, more importantly, the main criticism of the film lies with the fact that it lacks a real insight into the revolutionary work that Hawking undertook; physics really only receives a passing mention, which is a shame. But these are minor points because Hawking is, at heart, a biopic which, through the good and the bad, the laughs and the tears, ensures that you understand the creativity and individuality of one human spirit. Hawking states that you should ‘Make the most of each and every minute.’ And that is this film’s primary message.