Director: Stephen Finnegan
Major Players: Stephen Hawking
Out Of Five? Four
Back in the early 80s, we’d hardly heard of motor neurone disease. That all changed when the synthetic, computerised voice of Professor Stephen Hawking caught our attention and imagination. Today, against all the odds, he’s the most high profile sufferer from the disease – and a scientific superstar.
His remarkable life story is compressed into a 90 minute autobiography by Stephen Finnegan in his documentary, Hawking. Finnigan traces the life of the world’s greatest living scientist from his early years, through his student days and diagnosis of motor neurone disease at the age of 21, his scientific discoveries and the celebrity status he now enjoys – both as a result of his work and his disease.
That he is still alive is extraordinary in its own right. When he received his diagnosis, he was also told he had two years to live. He’s now 71 and, by his own admission, has lived in the shadow of death for 50 years. Despite the ravages of MND, he is determined to live his life as fully as he can, have new experiences and never stop asking questions. But, as one of his former research students muses, he is also the most stubborn individual he’s ever met.
Finnigan’s access to Hawking has enabled him to make a documentary on a big scale which still manages to be intimate. A sizeable part of the film is given over to the scientific discoveries – great if you’re into science, a bit of a lull if you’re not. Yet they have to be there: he lives and breathes science and mathematics. His disease is something he lives with – science is what he lives for. But on a smaller, more intimate scale, we are drawn into his daily life, seeing him being fed by one of his team of dedicated carers.
Such intimacy is emphasised by the camerawork, which bring us close to the man himself. The more probing shots are sometimes a little uncomfortable, but when they concentrate on his eyes, they’re extremely telling. His condition means he has few facial expressions left, but his eyes are still full of energy, intelligence and wit.
Hawking is also the film’s narrator, in that familiar computerised voice. It’s become his trademark, albeit a compulsory one as MND took away his speech some years ago. And yet, despite its strange intonation, you still get a clear impression of the man trapped inside the body – not just the intellect, which is unquestionable, but somebody who is determined to survive and who also recognises the toll this has taken on the people he loves most in his life. Yet he doesn’t reveal all: there is still part of him that remains private, that he keeps very much to himself.
Nowadays, he is constantly in the limelight and seems to enjoy it. Constantly being photographed with fans, making celebrity friends like Jim Carrey and even appearing in The Simpsons are all par for the course. And his weightless flight courtesy of Virgin is perhaps the most wondrous experience of all. For once – and only once – his disability doesn’t matter and he’s like everybody else.
Hawking is a fitting tribute to a remarkable man. Intimate and respectful, it never strays into sentimentality but it is, undeniably, moving. But the ultimate irony of his situation – the brilliant mind inside a near-immobile body – stares right back at us. And challenges our attitudes to disability.
Hawking is released in key cities around the UK on 20 September.