Screen adaptation of London play reveals the equally complicated worlds of high math and relationships
Madness and genius have long enjoyed a certain uncomfortable kinship. Philosophers and psychiatrists continue to ponder the awkward relationship between profound creative thought and mental instability, but the correlation (and its implication) never gets any clearer. Still, it all makes a strange kind of sense: the most affecting breakthroughs are typically based on the kinds of fragile, unthinkable truths the rest of us instinctually shy away from. Maybe in order to think outside the box, you need to live outside it, too.
Proof details the career, descent into madness and premature death of graphomaniac Robert Llewellyn (Anthony Hopkins), a revolutionary mathematician tended to by his shaky, sardonic daughter Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow, reprising her stage role from London’s West End). After Robert dies, Catherine’s sister, shiny-haired currency analyst Claire (Hope Davis) reappears, and Robert’s protégé, Hal Dobbs (Jake Gyllenhaal), begins scouring Robert’s notebooks, searching desperately for a moment of lucidity. Catherine is expectedly wary of Hal’s intentions, but, in a moment of post-coital bliss, slips Hal a groundbreaking mathematical proof. When she claims authorship of the proof, Hal is skeptical; meanwhile, Claire is unsure of Catherine’s mental steadiness, coaxing her to New York City, where plans for institutionalization loom.
Proof is based on David Auburn’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play; adapted by Auburn and directed by Shakespeare In Love’s John Madden (who also led Paltrow in Proof’s London run), the ?lm follows the script scrupulously, permitting only a handful of circumstantial tweaks. Typically staged on one set (the gently deteriorating back porch of the Llewellyns’ Chicago home), the ?lm inflates the space, venturing on campus, upstairs and into an Armani dressing room—but barely. Proof is insular; its world is small. Gritty and tense, the film eschews largeness, avoiding swelling strings and fancy camerawork in favor of lingering close-ups of Paltrow’s harried face, eyes twitching and blank, or sad portraits of Catherine and Robert stabbing plates of limp spaghetti, debating time lost.
Both Madden and Auburn are intent on clarifying the author of the proof in question, dissipating, through extended flashbacks, the narrative tension they so artfully establish. Yet Auburn is oddly cagey about the specifics of the proof (Hal half-mumbles something about primes), and the obfuscation of numbers is maintained throughout—we are constantly reminded that math is the terrain of academics, reserved for the heavily guarded, non-inclusive inner circle of masterminds who lurk under bad haircuts and behind thick glasses. It’s unsurprising, then, that when the essence of the proof is finally explained, in the film’s final scene, Madden tugs the camera back and waves in music—obscuring, one last time, the sticky particulars.
Catherine, being female, undereducated and wary of institutions, is presumed incapable of true discovery; to an extent, she perpetuates the illusion that genius requires degrees and appointments, dismissively dubbing the textbooks in her bedroom “window dressing.” But Proof consistently challenges its own archetypes, and the central tension of the film—is Catherine crazy? Is she a genius?—is prodded relentlessly. Proof may pose the question better than the overly sentimental A Beautiful Mind, and more simply than Amadeus, but ultimately, it’s still unclear whether genius can ever actually exist independent of insanity.