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Hawking: SXSW Review

Hawking Headshot Documentary - P 2013
Courtesy of Hawking

The Bottom Line

Science takes a backseat to personal narrative in first-person doc.

Venue

South by Southwest, Headliners

Director

Stephen Finnigan

The world's most famous scientist tells his own tale in an engaging bio-doc.

AUSTIN — Though trapped speechless in a wheelchair and capable of controlling only a few of the muscles in his body, Stephen Hawking has always managed to communicate with the outside world. Most of that effort has been devoted to explaining theories about black holes and the nature of the universe. But in Stephen Finnigan's Hawking, the cosmologist speaks in detail about his own life, offering an accessible self-portrait that should entertain admirers. Having done guest spots on The Simpsons and Star Trek, the thinker is no stranger to TV; the doc will likely find its audience there as well.

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Using his trademark voice-synthesizing software, Hawking narrates his own film, co-writing the script with Finnigan and exec producer Ben Bowie. A third-person portrait surely would have found perspectives that aren't addressed here, but this project is less about assessing his scientific legacy than walking us through his experience of life. (Plus, it's reassuring to find that one of the world's greatest minds can deliver such banalities as "life has thrown at me both good times and bad" when writing outside his own turf.)

The son of academics who was expected to be a serious thinker, Hawking went to Oxford but didn't apply himself. The culture there disdained hard intellectual work, Hawking says, so he did what came easily to him and was content to impress classmates with his wit. He estimates that he averaged about an hour's work per day during those years.

Only when working on his PhD at Cambridge -- intrigued by questions about the Big Bang and becoming aware of the disease (ALS) he was told would end his life in two or three years -- was he inspired to work hard. "I found I liked it," he reports.

Around this time he fell in love with Jane Wilde, married, and had three children. (Wilde appears here, the children do not.) Hawking spends some time charting how Hawking's degenerating physical state was first managed with Wilde's help, then required the assistance of secretaries and students (some of whom lived with him rent-free in exchange for the help), and eventually demanded round-the-clock professional nursing. Though the nitty-gritty of this care is left offscreen, we do briefly see him being spoon-fed.

Sometimes that spoon is feeding him champagne. Hawking's discoveries and best-selling publications have brought with them a life of honors and galas; Finnigan follows him to some, and it's poignant to see how little Hawking's face can register interest or pleasure while scores of people fawn over him and take his picture. It's clear from the film, though, that he enjoys the attention (and the perks that come with it), even if public life appears to have created the difficulties leading to his divorce from Wilde and from his second wife, Elaine Mason.

Hawking's sister, students and colleagues appear here to report what it's like to work with a man who lives so much in his own head; Hawking's pre-ALS years are further illustrated by nicely shot reenactments. But viewers hoping for explanations of the ideas that brought him fame should go instead to Errol Morris's 1991 A Brief History of Time (not mentioned here) or the book of the same name. After a record-breaking tenure on bestseller lists, the latter shouldn't be hard to find.

Production Company:

Director-Producer: Stephen Finnigan

Screenwriters: Stephen Hawking, Stephen Finnigan, Ben Bowie

Executive producers: Ben Bowie, David Glover, Beth Hoppe

Director of photography: Paul Jenkins

Production designer: Sharon Katanka

Music: Nick Powell, Alex Lee

Editor: Tim Lovell

Sales: Vertigo Films

No rating, 89 minutes