These days it seems Hollywood thinks there’s money to be made out of mathematics and madness. Such a union may not sound sexy, but Ron Howard’s 2001 A Beautiful Mind hit box-office and Oscars gold with its melodramatic and sentimental portrait of John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician cum schizophrenic.
John Madden’s Proof is different. It is a purely fictional story which replaces sensationalism with subtlety, but it too links mathematical genius with mental illness. It won’t gain so much commercial success, but it’s a much better movie.
Based on David Auburn’s 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, it focuses on the relations between 27-year-old Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her recently deceased mathematician father Robert (Anthony Hopkins), her overbearing elder sister Claire (Hope Davis) and Robert’s ex-student and her would-be lover Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Catherine is grieving for her father, whose groundbreaking ideas made him internationally famous early in his career but whom she had to look after for many years after he suffered a mental breakdown. Claire wants Catherine to leave her Chicago home and go and live with her and her fiance in New York where she can receive psychiatric help for her depression. Hal, on the other hand, while hoping to make valuable discoveries among the 103 notebooks Robert has left behind, tries to bring Catherine out of her shell and help her make her own life in Chicago.
The ‘proof’ of the title refers most obviously to the revolutionary mathematical proof that Hal eventually finds in a locked drawer, for which Catherine herself (who may have inherited some of her father’s genius as well as his mental instability) claims authorship – but can she prove it’s hers and not Robert’s? It also refers more generally to Catherine proving to herself and to others that she can establish her own independent identity in the world.
Madden previously directed Paltrow in the highly praised London stage version at the Donmar Warehouse in 2002, and Auburn has co-written the screenplay with Rebecca Miller, so that the sensitivity of the handling is not surprising. Of course, you can tell the film is an adaptation of a play because it concentrates very much on the conversational exchanges between four characters in intimate situations. But Madden doesn’t overdo the close-ups and discreetly opens up the action where appropriate – the flashbacks representing Catherine’s memories of when Robert was still alive and infused with a (misguided) energy for work are particularly well done.
Although a not entirely convincing thriller element is introduced later on with the discovery of the mysterious notebook, the film works well as a claustrophobic domestic drama with one outsider trying to break in with much needed fresh air. Without over-labouring the point, it suggests the certainty of maths is not possible in the messy relationships of real life, where every problem does not necessarily have a solution, and emotions outweigh logic.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal of Catherine is a less extreme version of her Sylvia Plath in Sylvia (when she also played a mentally fragile prodigy unbalanced by her father’s death, in a poetic rather than a mathematical context). In a touching, vanity-free performance, she suggests that Catherine’s choice to effectively give up her own life to care for her father was partly to escape the responsibility of making her own decisions.
Although Anthony Hopkins is not on screen for long, his powerful presence is felt throughout the film, as a man aware that his own mental powers are failing and who both bullies and encourages his daughter to follow in his footsteps.
Hope Davis avoids the danger of making Claire a caricature of sisterly bossiness and obsessive compulsive disorder: she likes to be in control but her concern for Catherine is genuine. The suddenly ubiquitous Jake Gyllenhaal (see Jarhead and Brokeback Mountain, for which he’s been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) is too clean-cut to be a convincing maths geek, while the motivation for his interest in Catherine could be more interestingly ambivalent.
Proof is a mature and moving examination of the dynamics of human relationships. It’s never going to have the mass appeal of Madden and Paltrow’s previous film collaboration Shakespeare in Love, but then that was never part of the equation.