Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Although directed and co-written by Stephen Finnigan, this PBS and Channel 4 co-production, is essentially an autobiographical trot through the life of Stephen Hawking, whose Hawking radiation discovery - which means black holes can theoretically dwindle to nothing - revolutionised the way scientists think about the universe. As he says at the outset: "This film is a personal journey through my life, in my own words."

The physics genius narrates his story in more or less chronological order, his highly personal recollections and observations intercut with footage of him going about the daily business of being a scientific superstar, archival home video, still photos and a spot of dramatisation.

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At 71, Hawking's mental energy and sense of humour remain undimmed by his failing body, which began to succumb to the ravages of a rare type of motor neurone disease - amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - when he was just 22. He is almost certainly the most famous sufferer of the condition, also explored by newly released documentary I Am Breathing, which gradually sees the disease attack nerves in the brain and spinal chord, stripping away the sufferer's ability to control their movements.

Spending around two-thirds of his life with the threat of death hanging over him, Hawking has thrown his brain and whatever physical ability he has had into making the most of it.

He recalls his normal - if undoubtedly privileged - childhood, aided by recollections from his sister Mary, who emphasises his drive to win from an early age, noting that after she once beat him at draughts he switched to chess and she never beat him again. His story really begins to grip when he went up to Oxford, where he notes that students were "supposed to be brilliant without effort". He was, of course, and quickly became a party animal who could happily romp through his degree on an hour of work a day. In a typical example of his humour, he recounts his first discovery regarding black holes, noting that when it comes to a "eureka moment", "I won't compare it to sex, but it lasts longer".

His ex-wife Jane contributes heavily and clearly remains very fond of him despite a difficult split. He, in turn, speaks in glowing terms of her - "We were going to challenge the future," he says, noting that the two of them were determined to forge a life together despite his diagnosis. He is also reasonably frank about his blindness to the stresses that his illness put on his young family, although this is not a film that dwells on anything for too long. Finnigan's direction is smooth, but the use of blurring of edges of the frame on ocassion seems more like an affectation than anything to further the story.

Hawking's three children are also conspicuous by their absence, which is a bit of a black hole in the film, when you come to consider it. And though he touches on his controversial marriage to his nurse Elaine Mason, which ended in a blur of unproven tabloid allegations that he had suffered physical abuse at her hands, he largely glosses over the 11-year period, briefly noting that he felt the split was nobody's business but their own.

As with all personal documentaries, it is almost inevitable that what you gain in intimacy, you lose in objectivity. Nevertheless, this is an engaging exploration of Hawking's attitude to life and his achievements, which should be praised for emphasising the fact that illness for him and many other people on the planet is just another facet of existence rather than a all-consuming driving force.

Reviewed on: 29 Jun 2013
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The struggles and the glories of the world-famous scientist.
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Director: Stephen Finnigan

Starring: Stephen Hawking, Nathan Chapple, Arthur Pelling, Martin King, Joe Lovell

Year: 2013

Runtime: 86 minutes

Country: UK


EIFF 2013

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If you like this, try:

I Am Breathing
The Sessions