It’s hard to find something bad to say about Stephen Hawking. He is a man who pioneered hugely significant scientific understandings but has also popularised them in society and brought complex physics into the heart of mainstream culture.
So it is a fair assumption that it might be too easy to make a simple biopic that told us his story; documenting his early life, education and such.
As such you hope Hawking would offer something more than a simple account of the man. A chance to know what Stephen Hawking was like when he wasn’t constantly being looked at in relation to his achievements. His depiction in Hawking sits somewhere in between these two things.
Firstly, it would be wrong to devalue how interesting and important Stephen Hawking’s’ life story really is. It is fascinating to discover how he got on at school and University and his harsh dealings with motor neurone disease and how that affected his life were both heart-warming and harrowing.
The portrayal of the latter is one of the boldest areas of the film. It’s natural, honest and unafraid. The feature itself opens with an extreme close up of Stephen’s face as he speaks and the focus is firmly on him, rather than his words, which strikes as something exciting , something very rarely seen before and perhaps something other media have chosen to shy away from.
It also delves deeply into the relationship with his carers, one of whom went on to become his second wife. This is compelling, not for controversial appeal of any sort but for exploring an area that has been avoided and misunderstood by many.
The film does however tell us this in quite a uniform manner. The story is told from the perspective of immediate family, friends, colleagues and this format doesn’t feel quite right. Though Hawking himself narrates and offers some voluntary insight into his personality it’s still hard not to think it would be more interesting if the overall aims of the film were slightly more introspective and intrusive.
It would be interesting to discover, his philosophies, his feelings, why he got into what he did and where his real interest in the Universe came from. Given the complexity of this man’s discoveries, the film addresses the complex nature of his discoveries with too much simplicity.
Despite this, there are some truly special insights into Stephen’s personality that are highlights. We do learn that his musical inspiration was Wagner and often would be known to blare this from a record player when engulfed in his research. And that he didn’t work particularly hard at Cambridge or wasn’t necessarily ever destined for success. But again, we’re simply told this and it isn’t explored in enough depth.
The expectation of a film like this is to tread new ground that hasn’t been covered, to see further into Hawking’s’ true self and in this sense the film leaves a less than satisfying after-taste.
For those with little to no knowledge about Stephen Hawking, this film is recommended. His story alone is undeniably moving and it is told in a just and sensitive way. The visuals are sophisticated and at times serve to remind us we’re watching a feature length documentary film; a point that is perhaps not relished enough in other areas of this depiction.
But if you seek a deep insight, an understanding and a focus on the man rather than his history Hawking may not offer quite enough.