Stuart: A Life Backwards

Welcome to week three of MD AT THE MOVIES! This week we’re covering Stuart: A Life Backwards, a 2007 film starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy as Alexander Master and Stuart Shorter respectively. This is also our first film that’s based on a true story.

If you’ve just joined us, please check out our previous reviews of Inside I’m Dancing and The Fundamentals of Caring. With the trailers out of the way, let’s get into the film. As usual, Emma’s thoughts will be in Blue and my thoughts will be in Green.

Initial Thoughts

I must admit I didn’t go into this film as excited as I did with the previous two week’s films. To be honest, I hadn’t even heard of it until Joe and I were researching films about Muscular Dystrophy.

The movie poster shows the two main characters played by Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch sitting on a wall. Initially, you would not think this film is about a man with Muscular Dystrophy. There is no visible sign of a physical disability.

I think most people have preconceptions and associate disability, especially Muscular Dystrophy, with the use of a wheelchair, when in fact that isn’t necessarily true. This film is proof of that.

I knew next to nothing about this film going in. After the last two weeks, I almost felt as though there was a defined formula for MD movies but this is really different to anything we’ve covered.

It’s particularly notable that this film doesn’t lean on the depiction of Stuart’s Facioscapulohumeral Muscular Dystrophy. Some symptoms are apparent but it’s not the heart of the film, which is fine. This isn’t a film about a man and his battles with FSHD, it just a film about a man.

I applaud it for that, it’s not the upbeat and uplifting story we’ve become accustomed to. It’s the story of a man with a traumatic childhood and a tendency to resort of violence, how that exists alongside his campaign work and this bizarre friendship he forms.


Just like the last two films we’ve reviewed, Stuart: A Life Backwards also tells the story of a budding friendship between two men. Although this one was quite different and based on a true story.

It centres around aspiring writer Alexander Masters who through volunteering at a homeless centre meets Stuart Shorter, a homeless man with a drug and alcohol addiction. They are both from very different backgrounds but surprisingly become a big part of each other’s lives and then great friends.

I felt the story was slow particularly in the first half so I found myself drifting in and out quite a lot. There was also animated cartoon scenes played throughout which I found a little off-putting.  

It picked up and became more interesting the more we find out about Stuart’s traumatic past. Even though Alexander is the writer, it is Stuart who suggestions writing the book backwards ”Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was?”

The film is like a jigsaw puzzle, piecing together Stuart’s life revealing all the heartbreaking and shocking events that lead him to where he is now.

The plot gets moving with the police raiding Winter Comfort, a day shelter in Cambridge. The two bosses have been arrested due to drugs being sold on the property. They aren’t complicit but as they own the organisation, they’re responsible.

Stuart introduces himself to Alexander after a meeting about how to help the “Cambridge Two” and they become friends. Alexander then decides to write Stuart’s biography and starts piecing together the life of this intriguing, broken and dangerous man.

On hearing a few lines from the book, Stuart is unimpressed and suggests he writes the book backwards, like a murder mystery, telling the story of what killed the boy Stuart was. Stuart is full of ideas, most unfeasible like his idea of office in a van, but ideas nonetheless.

I can’t praise him too much though, Stuart is a violent man who succumbs to the “Black Mist” occasionally, in one scene he smashes up his flat, where he is found naked and bloodied with a frying pan ablaze.

It’s only when Stuart is admitted to hospital due to the incident in his flat, we learn of his Muscular Dystrophy. “Humeral Scapula Somefin Muscular Dystrophy,” he says “It’s a real Gobstopper.” That’s an hour and five minutes in as Muscular Dystrophy is not the focus here. Stuart is a lot more interesting than his disability.

As the film proceeds, the murder mystery is solved when the true extent of the abuse he suffered as child is made apparent. These acts killed the boy he was.


It should be noted that Benedict performs well in the role but he’s more of a proxy for the viewer than a fully realised character, Stuart is by far the most interesting of the two.

Although we don’t find out until later in the film that Stuart has Facioscapulohumeral Muscular Dystrophy (FSHD) is it clear from the beginning that his physical movements are affected in some way.

What isn’t clear is whether this is caused by his drug and alcohol addiction or Muscular Dystrophy.

Everything from his slurred muffled speech, shuffling walk, reduced shoulder movements and mannerisms are all apparent indicators. In a sense Stuart had an invisible disability as to look at him you wouldn’t think he had a muscle wasting condition.

Even after spending such a long time together, his friend Alexander was completely unaware he had Muscular Dystrophy until he ended up in the hospital.

I didn’t have much to compare it to as I’ve only seen a few films with Tom Hardy, but regardless, he gives a great performance as Stuart. There are different layers to Stuart which Tom manages to portray incredibly well. It seemed so real that his acting didn’t seem like acting. In a way, it looked natural and effortless.

Despite being a bit of a violent psychopath, in and out of jail most of his life, I couldn’t help but feel empathy for Stuart at times. Particularly when we see flashbacks of his childhood and the experiences he went through. You get a sense of the pain and upset he suffered.

There are some disturbing scenes between him and his girlfriend that showed how violent and brutal he could be, which was uncomfortable to watch.

Overall, this film shows that we all need to be a little more compassionate towards others. We don’t always know what people have gone through or are going through (visible or invisible), which can often lead them down the wrong path in order to cope and escape. 

Stuart is darkly humorous, with a Shane MacGowan like libertine knack for adding poetry to life. So much so, that I couldn’t help but see the Pogues frontman in him.

Despite his rough exterior, he is an engaging speaker, giving talks as part of their campaigning about his attempted suicide. “I am the nightmare you frighten your children with.”

As Emma touched on above, it’s unclear if his speech is due to FSHD or just substance abuse but his movements are very similar to that exhibited by those with this form of MD.

He is also somewhat repentant as when asked what one thing he’d change in his life, he wants to change his discovery of violence. He acknowledges the harm others have caused him, but he’s more frightened of the harm he causes himself, yet in violence he found his power.

“I let the devil in, and now I can’t get him out. He don’t wanna be homeless.”

Rating out of 5

Stuart: A life lived backwards, is a fascinating, heartbreaking, raw and at times disturbing, funny and touching film. I didn’t go into this film expecting to love it, and I didn’t, but I also didn’t hate it.

It’s a very well-acted film telling the true story of Stuart Shorter, which Tom Hardy did brilliantly.

It’s also quite simple in terms of cinematography, which I think
suits the story, anything fancier would have been unrealistic.

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Of the movies featured, this film was the hardest to write up.

Before I say anything more, this film is worthwhile but it is a very hard watch. There are scenes of excessive violence being committed by Stuart, including a scene where he is covered in his own blood and another where and headbutts his girlfriend and brandishes a knife. I’d rather you were aware before seeking out the film yourself.

Tom does exceptionally well in his portrayal of the lost soul that was Stuart Shorter. We have a terrifying character with immense vulnerability, showing that people are never just one thing. For good or bad, we should be judged by our deeds, not our disabilities. I didn’t leave the film with a sense of closure. It brought me close to tears and I felt it was powerful.

Thank you for reading! We hope you enjoyed this instalment of MD at the Movies. hopefully, we have convinced you to take a look at Stuart: A Life Backwards.

Posts alternate between our blogs every Friday in July and Emma will be hosting the next movie review so make sure you are following us both and join in on our Muscular Dystrophy movie festival. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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  1. […] it almost impossible to find a movie about Muscular Dystrophy that wasn’t focused on Duchenne. Stuart: A Life Backwards being the only movie in our series that broke this […]

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