Forgotten Films

Life Story (1987)

There haven't been that many dramas about particular scientific discoveries because narrative films are about people and the story of people so you will generally ending up creating something biographical about the scientist behind the breakthrough, with that breakthrough. Generally the process of testing and then retesting and thinking through the problem at hand isn't that exciting to watch so you have to look to whether the scientist him or herself led an interesting life - but if that life was spent in labs you really haven't much to go on - unless they spent more time there than with their wife in which case then you probably have yourself a story.

Generally the problem is solved by simply making a straight documentary, which is usually what you would expect to find in the BBC's Horizon strand for which this was made. Instead writer William Nicholson and director Mick Jackson's docu-drama turns the search for the structure of DNA in 1953 into a race, cross-cutting between the two rival teams, Francis Crick (Jeff Goldblum) & James D. Watson (Tim Piggot-Smith) at Cambridge University and Maurice Wilkins (Alan Howard) and particularly Rosalind Franklin (Juliet Stevenson) at King's College London. In doing so, the film fulfills all the requirements of a film narrative, with antagonists and protagonists, binary opposites, whathaveyou, whilst at the same time cleverly demonstrating the importance of the discovery and what it means for mankind.

Although the plot is largely based upon Watson's point of view (his book The Double Helix was a source) and the characterization of Franklin as a very reserved shy person has been disputed, the film manages to perfectly balance science and history, demonstrating the institutional attitudes that led to Franklin's contribution receding into the background in the face of Watson and Crick's flamboyance. Their working methods are carefully contrasted, with the two men's inspirational trips to the pub juxtaposed with her meticulous experimentation. The film's best scene is fittingly in the reveal of the helix, as Franklin sees the model that the men have created, a tower with Bunsen burner stands and clamps reaching to the ceiling, the camera spinning around it demonstrating the beautiful complexity of the genetic structure to her and us. It's a triumphant yet tragic moment as she realizes she's been beaten.

Because it's shot on the grainy 16mm, the film looks like the work of another age despite the wonderful cast. It's truly astonishing to see Jeff Goldblum in a BBC Film of this type in 1987, the same year he was Brundelfly, especially since he's largely rehearsing the persona that would be repeated in Jurassic Park, four years later. His presence suggests ambitions for the film beyond its television origin and I truly believe that if it had been released theatrically it would not only have found an audience but would be considered one of the greatest British films of all time with the dvd release it deserves. As it stands, the last time the film was seen in public was during a season of programmes on BBC Four in 2003 commemorating the discovery of DNA; there was a US VHS release in 1993 under the alternative title The Race for the Double Helix copies of which are going for $70 on Amazon's Marketplace. So this might be the most obscure film on the list, especially since I couldn't find a picture of from it. If you're at university you could see if there's a copy in one of the science libraries ...

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