November 29, 2021

Hawking – How many Higgs-Boson does it take to change a lightbulb? asks Jim Carrey

Who’d have thought that Jim Carrey and Stephen Hawking were chums?

The Edinburgh Film Festival continues. Today I watched Hawking, a documentary about Stephen Hawking. With Hawking himself credited as one of the writers, I would say the film comes dangerously close to hero-worship but I’m not sure that you can be dangerously close to hero-worship. You can be dangerously close to a large chainsaw but there’s nothing really dangerous about a bit of adulation. Everyone would like to make a documentary entitled How brilliant I am, and although that isn’t the official subtitle the film does take a fanboy approach to the 71 year old physicist. No one actually sings

We love you Hawking, we do,

We love you Hawking, we do,

We love you Hawking we do,

Oh Hawking we love you

but some of the interviewees come pretty close.

Hawking, directed by BAFTA nominated Stephen Finnigan, is set up as a straight forward narrative of Stephen Hawking’s life, or at least the good bits. And oddly – in the context of making a human-interest film – the Motor Neurone Disease is a good bit as it shows him battling the odds, heroically beating everything the illness throws at him for years. When diagnosed he was only given 2-3 years to live and he has managed almost fifty. The film gives a strong impression that Hawking has rarely done anything wrong, but I suppose if you are making a documentary about yourself it is only natural to focus on the positives. When the BBC come calling I certainly intend to miss out all the tales of failure and concentrate on my charity work. And Hawking’s illness and narrow escapes from death give the story the tension and changes in pace that it needs. Where a healthier man would have had to alternate tales of success with tales of not-quite-successes or even failures, here the narrative is able to jump from illness to success, illness to success without seeming too cloying. Anyway, the narration does mention the fact that for his first honeymoon he took his bride to a physics conference, so it can’t be said the film paints him in an unbelievably perfect light.

The filmmakers had access to some archive footage of Hawking, but most of the time they have to show old photos to provide images whilst people reminisce. They have used too many out of focus reconstructions of events in Hawking’s life – stethoscope checking his chest, man sitting on bed – and have decided to use Hawking’s distinctive robotic voice to narrate the piece. The camera has been switched to shallow depth of field – even when they are not filming a deliberated blurred reconstruction much of the frame is deliberately out of focus.

We are shown a picture of a normal man, with a love of complex equations. The prof might have a wasting disease, but he still has pride and his brilliance at physics has been a ticket to fame and fortune that he has enjoyed.

Hawking is an interesting film about one of the most famous scientists in the world. One interviewee does muse on the connection between the disease and Hawking’s success, wondering to what extent living with the constant threat of death forced him to work harder. There is much talk of physics and science, but I like the insight that when interviewing a new care assistant his most pressing concern was whether she could cook poached eggs.




86 mins

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