Professor Stephen Hawking is almost certainly the world’s most widely known and celebrated scientist since Einstein. His fame arises of course not only from his startling research into the nature of black holes and the origins of the universe and his success in popularising his insights through a string of bestselling books but from the massively debilitating medical condition of motor neurone disease which has left him barely able to move, let alone speak or write. As a resident of Cambridge I’ve come across Hawking a few times, firstly as a Maths undergraduate twenty-five years ago when the lectures he gave to publicise the launch of A Brief History Of Time appeared on my timetable, and latterly I’ve spotted him just going about his business in the town centre: buying fruit at the market or bombing down King’s Parade at high speed in his wheelchair or watching a film at the Arts Cinema (predecessor to the current Picturehouse). He’s even come into the bookshop I work at a couple of times, once, brilliantly, approaching the counter at the same time as another customer whose enquiry of “Do you have any books by Stephen H…” trailed off into slack-jawed disbelief as he realised who he was standing next to.
There have been plenty of documentaries and dramatisations of the life of the man already but Stephen Finnigan’s new film Hawking may turn out to be the most definitive of all of them, given that the subject himself co-wrote it and even provides narration in that strange computerised voice that somehow now feels as familar and comforting as David Attenborough’s. Finnigan has been given access to scores of old photographs and home movie footage from the years before Hawking achieved celebrity and has also got interviews from many of the most important witnesses to his life, including crucially his first wife Jane who provides a lucid and moving description of the challenges of maintaining a normal family life in such unusual circumstances. We also get to hear from Hawking’s sister, a whole faculty’s worth of notable theoretical physicists including Sir Roger Penrose, and rather unexpectedly Jim Carrey, who once wrote the great man into a comedy skit. In between the talking heads there are tastefully blurry reconstructions of the young Stephen whooping it up at Oxford and feverishly scrawling equations on blackboards, and lots of nice footage of Cambridge streets, colleges and bikes which has been convincingly Instagrammed up to give it that grainy seventies feel. Then there are the bits involving actual mathematics, which is always a thorny one for film-makers to get across – Finnigan sensibly doesn’t go too far into the nuts and bolts of the equations but settles for pithy summaries of the behaviour of black holes and so on set against whizzy firework-like computer generated graphics. I’ve been a bit flippant but this is a really involving film, with most of the potential sentimentality neutralised by Hawking’s cutting, tell-it-like-it-is, wit. He’s someone who was given two years to live over fifty years ago and the impression you get of the man inside the physically helpless body is of a bitingly keen, rigorous and restless mind that can’t wait to test a new frontier.
It’s fitting that Hawking was chosen as the opening film for this year’s Cambridge Film Festival given the man’s association with the city, and the organisers must be congratulated for the quality and quantity of speakers they managed to assemble for the Q & A session after the showing. Khrishnan Guru-Murthy conducted short interviews with film-makers Finnigan and Ben Bowie, Walter Woltosz (the man who developed the indispensable speech software), Hawking’s sister Mary, his former student and helper Kip Thorne and finally, amazingly, Hawking himself. This last interview obviously couldn’t be conducted off the cuff and the pauses while Hawking painstakingly triggered his prepared answers from his computer were undoubtedly long enough to make the audience feel uncomfortable but it also provided a demonstration of how difficult and time-consuming the process of just communicating is for him. His tenacity and lust for life was underlined by his willingness to appear and he shows so sign of wanting to retire just yet: Richard Branson appeared on screen at one point to re-affirm an offer to give Hawking a free ticket on the first Virgin flights into space when they become available, an offer that Hawking is very keen to accept. An amazing life.