Screens Lost in thought

A contemplative film tries to pierce the veil of mystery surrounding genius and its attendant insecurities

Can a camera capture thought? A mathematician lost in thought is a phenomenon that is lost to movies. The most abstract of disciplines, mathematics defies cinema, the most concrete of arts. It is ludicrous enough to reduce the intensity of Michelangelo's visions to images of a man on his back on a scaffold beneath a ceiling. How much more difficult would it be to capture on camera the ratios, functions, and theorems through which Carl Friedrich Gauss, Georg Cantor, and Kurt Gödel groped their way toward transcendence. To the innumerate many, such rare men are freaks, at best amiable, dotty nerds, like Einstein's Princeton pals in I.Q. Or else, like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, they are violently deranged, a risk to others and themselves.

"The integral of e to the x is equal to f of the quantity u to the n," says math genius Robert Llewellyn (Anthony Hopkins) to his daughter, Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow).

According to Hal Dobbs (Gyllenhaal), his former student at the University of Chicago, Robert Llewellyn (Hopkins) revolutionized mathematics twice before he was 22. But a nervous breakdown a few years later forced him to abandon the ramparts. He died at 63, one week before the opening scene of Proof. Eager to retrieve a major discovery that will jump-start his own stagnant career, young Hal has been examining the 103 notebooks into which Richard scrawled his graphomania during the final, lonely years of his existence. Richard's younger daughter, 27-year-old Catherine (Paltrow), served as his housekeeper and confidante, and she becomes uncomfortable when Hal spends days scavenging among her father's messy manuscripts. She is resentful of her older sister, Claire (Davis), a jaunty martinet who swoops in from New York to seize control of everything.

Dir. John Madden; writ. David Auburn, based on his stage play; feat. Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Hope Davis, Jake Gyllenhaal (PG-13)

Adapted by screenwriter David Auburn from his own stage play, Proof follows Catherine, Hal, and Claire during a week of intense confrontations - at Richard's funeral, at the family house, at the university, at O'Hare. Numerous flashbacks evoke Catherine's relationship to her brilliant but barmy father, not entirely that of acolyte and master. Like Amadeus, the film examines the mutual obligations of mediocrity and genius, though one of the questions teasing a viewer throughout these proceedings is who is Mozart and who is Salieri. Mathematicians make their names by devising improbable proofs, but Proof, whose dialogue is functional though not memorable, maintains a purposeful ambiguity about key elements of the plot. Like Pierre de Fermat's infamous last theorem, the motives and actions of Richard, Catherine, Hal, and Claire elude proof. Believing that math approaches mysticism, Bertrand Russell observed: "Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true." In Proof, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Mrs. Brown, Ethan Frome) summons up the virtuoso mathematician's respect for infinity and indeterminacy.

Mathematics is traditionally a young man's game - a fact not lost on Catherine, insecure in her father's world, and Hal, anxious that at 26 he has already passed his prime numbers. It is too late for precocity though not for trust. Proof belongs to the small subset of thoughtful films about thoughtful people.

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