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A drama documenting the life and work of the theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking who, despite being diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21, has galvanized the scientific world with his ground-breaking work on the nature of the universe. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) Written by
'Hawking', which I saw recently on BBC2, is a fictionalised telefilm biography of physicist Stephen Hawking ... known to Homer Simpson as 'that wheelchair guy'. (Hawking is also the only person ever to make a guest appearance *as himself* in an episode of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'.) Some modern-day public figures are so well-known -- in vocal patterns and physical appearance -- that any actor's attempt to portray them on screen must be to some extent a physical impersonation. A depiction of Hawking presents unusual opportunities and challenges. Firstly, audiences have no idea what Hawking's speaking voice sounded like, as he did not become a public figure until the progressive degenerative disease which afflicts him (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS) had worsened to the point that he now 'speaks' with the aid of an electronically-generated voice that makes him sound like a Dalek. In the early scenes of 'Hawking', before Hawking acquires ALS, actor Benedict Cumberbatch (great name!) speaks in a cultured voice that is certainly appropriate to the character he plays on screen, if not the actual Hawking.
More problematic is the physical portrayal, as we're aware that an 'able' actor is portraying a disabled person: if Cumberbatch's rendition of Hawking's symptoms is accurate, inevitably some audience members will accuse him of overacting. This is a no-win situation, which would have daunted any non-disabled actor in such a role.
Cumberbatch is appealing and charismatic (more so than the real Hawking) in the early sequences, leading up to when Hawking first experiences tremors at age 21. There's an awkward scene in a jazz club, that could have degenerated into self-parody. We see Hawking, physically challenged but not yet incapacitated, watching enviously while others dance. Awkwardly, he rises and attempts to join in. (By all accounts, Hawking was socially uncoordinated long before he was physically so.) Cumberbatch gives as much dignity as possible to a portrayal which we recognise as that of a graceful actor depicting a man who has both social and neurological disabilities.
The portrayals of some of the other real-life figures are not very well-thought. I knew Sir Fred Hoyle, and the actor who portrays him here is neither especially accurate nor especially credible in his portrayal ... except for the scene re-enacting the famous incident when Hawking denounced Hoyle's latest theory in the auditorium of the Royal Society. Roger Penrose, the developer of tile theory, is played here as an absent-minded boffin who witters away at the public bar without remembering that he'd meant to order a pint.
The most ludicrous scene (a fictitious incident?) occurs when Hawking is in a railway compartment with a woman who can talk the hind leg off a donkey, prompting Hawking to suddenly imagine Time reversing itself. This scene appears to be inspired by a sequence in 'A Beautiful Mind', but that film depicted scientific inspiration much more cleverly than is done here.
Cumberbatch is quite good in the early scenes, yet he gets even better in the later scenes as Hawking's ALS takes its toll on his body. Inevitably, Cumberbatch's role gravitates into Lon Chaney territory, yet his portrayal is so deft that it never quite tips over into histrionics. The period detail and production design are impeccable throughout.
SLIGHT SPOILER NOW. There is an awkward framing device, reminiscent of several Tom Stoppard plays or Michael Frayn's 'Copenhagen', yet less effective than either. We see two Nobel laureates giving a TV interview, discussing a noise they've discovered, which turns out to be the background microwave radiation that fills the universe ... the leftover sound of the Big Bang. (Fred Hoyle invented that term, but intended it derisively: he rejected the Big Bang theory which is now widely accepted.)
I'll rate 'Hawking' 8 out of 10, as a flawed but excellent attempt to depict a difficult biographical subject who is involved in a field that audiences don't readily comprehend. ALS, the disease that crippled Stephen Hawking, is known in America as Lou Gehrig's disease, in honour(?) of the baseball player whose brilliant career and promising life were ended by it. Lou Gehrig's story was told brilliantly in 'Pride of the Yankees', but that great film remained very shadowy and nebulous about the terrible disease at the centre of its story. 'Hawking' does not pull such punches, and I recommend this excellent bio-pic.
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