Classic Intel: Hawking - DVD Review

'it’s not hard to see why Hawking became a breakthrough entry on Cumberbatch’s acting CV'

Before being best known for playing fictional brainbox Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch made his name early on in his career for his portrayal of real-life genius Stephen Hawking. A decade on from Cumberbatch’s turn as one of the greatest scientific minds of all time, it’s not hard to see why Hawking became a breakthrough entry on Cumberbatch’s acting CV.

The primary focus of Peter Moffat’s script upon the two years following Stephen Hawking’s twenty-first birthday is a smart move in many ways. Moffat affords both Hawking’s diagnosis and early struggle with motor-neurone disease and his feverish study towards his PhD roughly equal time, achieving a pleasing interplay between the two elements of the scientist’s young life.

This relatively narrow focus allows Cumberbatch to develop an extraordinary authenticity in his portrayal of Hawking. The actor’s performance is wonderfully human, crafted from both uncanny intellect and an impish charm - we see Hawking early on at his birthday party perversely select Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries as background music, and later successfully rise to a friend’s challenge to use Einstein’s theory of relativity to chat up a girl in a pub.

What elevates Cumberbatch’s portrayal even further is his effortless handling of the two competing battles in the young scientist’s life, ensuring the audience can do nothing else but believe wholeheartedly in the frustrations of both. Cumberbatch ensures that Hawking’s grappling with his doctoral thesis subject never feels trivial; the fact that his later emergence as one of the most important scientific minds in history is now such widespread knowledge never takes away from the journey Moffat’s script and Cumberbatch’s performance take us on.

By the same token, Hawking’s motor-neurone disease being integral to his contemporary cultural persona makes it all the more emotional to see the young man come to terms with his condition as his health gradually deteriorates. The painful irony of Hawking’s mental capabilities soaring as his physical self becomes less and less under his control is handled exquisitely and never exploitatively.

For all its undeniable strengths, Hawking isn’t a perfect piece of drama. The romantic element of Hawking’s life - juggling a fledgling relationship with Jane Wilde (Lisa Dillon) with his studies and health issues - whilst eventually receiving the development it deserves, earlier on in the film feels a little undernourished. A secondary narrative interwoven into the main story focuses upon a parallel scientific discovery to Hawking’s groundbreaking PhD work. Whilst intriguing, this story nonetheless feels somewhat uninspired in its delivery and ends up coming across as a little too separate from the main narrative to gel together with it satisfyingly.

Overall, however, Hawking deserves recognition as a robust and engaging dramatisation of Stephen Hawking’s young life, as well as an early example of the leading man credentials for which Benedict Cumberbatch is now increasingly recognised.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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