THE BRIGHT­EST CLOWN

In Nat Geo’s new se­ries, Ge­of­frey Rush has fun with the lesser-known sides of Albert Ein­stein

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell Ge­nius: Ein­stein,

En­ter­ing our view­ing life this week with a rather large blaze of pub­lic­ity, in­clud­ing a witty, highly lauded com­mer­cial dur­ing the re­cent US Su­per Bowl, is Na­tional Ge­o­graphic net­work’s first re­cur­ring scripted an­thol­ogy se­ries, Ge­nius, where each new sea­son fo­cuses on an in­flu­en­tial thinker or in­no­va­tor. The first, about Albert Ein­stein, is based on the Wal­ter Isaac­son book Ein­stein: His Life and Uni­verse, adapted by Noah Pink and ex­ec­u­tive-pro­duced by Hol­ly­wood lu­mi­nar­ies Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, whose com­pany Imag­ine is bet­ter known for epic movies like Apollo 13 and A Beau­ti­ful Mind.

The new se­ries is a piv­otal part of Nat Geo’s shift from typ­i­cal ca­ble re­al­ity non­fic­tion shows fo­cused on sci­ence, his­tory and na­ture, to pro­jects the com­pany says are bet­ter aligned with the pres­tige as­so­ci­ated with its so­ci­ety and magazine name­sakes. The plan is all about “am­pli­fy­ing sto­ry­telling ca­pa­bil­i­ties”. The idea, ac­cord­ing to Nat Geo’s pres­i­dent Howard T. Owens, is to make “smarter­tain­ment” that delivers on “the prom­ise of tap­ping into the ex­plorer in ev­ery­one, which is sort of our work­ing in­ter­nal motto”.

Apart from Ge­nius, the net­work also has in devel­op­ment the tan­talis­ing drama se­ries Blood Ivory, de­scribed as a dark thriller cen­tred on the mas­sive global web of trade in con­tra­band an­i­mals and ivory, and its con­nec­tion to the traf­fick­ing of nar­cotics, peo­ple and weapons; and a 17th-cen­tury pe­riod se­ries based on Broke­back Moun­tain au­thor An­nie Proulx’s Bark­skins.

Ge­nius is the third col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Nat Geo and Howard. He has been in­volved in Break­through, in which six well-known di­rec­tors were com­mis­sioned to pro­duce six per­sonal films telling the sto­ries of how sci­en­tists are delv­ing into new realms of re­search. He was also be­hind the re­cent Mars, a stylish scripted drama about sci­en­tific ef­forts to reach and colonise Mars that was in­ter­cut with documentary-style footage and in­ter­views with space ex­plo­ration ex­perts. In­no­va­tive and highly en­ter­tain­ing it was too.

Howard also di­rects the open­ing episode of Ein­stein, the first time he has ven­tured into TV drama be­hind the cam­eras. And as one might ex­pect he dis­plays many cin­e­matic eye-fill­ing mo­ments along the way. The all-star cast in­cludes Ge­of­frey Rush as Ein­stein, Johnny Flynn as the young Albert, and Emily Wat­son as the sci­en­tist’s long-suf­fer­ing, eter­nally stoic sec­ond wife — and first cousin — Elsa Ein­stein.

Filmed in Prague, where the Ger­man-born Jewish the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist lived and taught early in his ca­reer, the se­ries goes out glob­ally almost si­mul­ta­ne­ously in 171 coun­tries and 45 lan­guages.

It is char­ac­terised by some mag­nif­i­cent im­ages from cin­e­matog­ra­pher Mathias Herndl, who brings a moody and tex­tured feel to the photography and a deft hand with ac­tion se­quences — though, like all good TV th­ese days, it’s the work of many hands and eyes.

“He was fas­ci­nated by the de­tails of ex­is­tence,” Howard says of his mer­cu­rial sub­ject. “That made ev­ery hour of ev­ery day in­ter­est­ing to him. I wanted to ac­knowl­edge that and cre­ate a visual style for the show that is go­ing to draw you in.” The ex­pe­ri­enced Howard does this quite beau­ti­fully, and the in­ter­weav­ing of past and pre­sent, a fea­ture of his ap­proach, is es­pe­cially be­guil­ing to the eye.

Over 10 episodes, the se­ries ex­plores Ein­stein’s strug­gles to be a de­cent hus­band and fa­ther — not the eas­i­est task for a man with such a lusty ap­petite for women — and por­trays a man of in­de­pen­dent char­ac­ter, a con­vinced paci­fist, an egal­i­tar­ian and demo­crat dur­ing a time of lost peace, un­rest, in­sta­bil­ity and con­stant eco­nomic cri­sis. The se­ries be­gins spec­tac­u­larly in full-on ac­tion mode, evok­ing the back­ground of un­cer­tainty and danger against which our sci­en­tific hero ex­pe­ri­enced his in­scrutable flashes of in­sight and be­came a global sci­en­tific su­per­star.

On June 24, 1922, Walther Ra­thenau, the Jewish for­eign min­is­ter of the Weimar Repub­lic and a friend of Ein­stein’s, was as­sas­si­nated by three men with ma­chine­guns and grenades in a six-seater dark grey au­to­mo­bile as he was be­ing driven to an ap­point­ment. The se­quence sets up a toxic at­mos­phere of anti-Semitism and the fer­vent na­tion­al­is­tic de­sires of many Ger­man ci­ti­zens. His mur­der trig­gers Ein­stein’s deep sad­ness as anti-Semitism rises in Ger­many, and his ha­tred of Ger­man na­tion­al­ism as his the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity be­gins to be seen as an idea that of­fends the com­mon sense of sci­en­tists, with his aca­demic ad­ver­saries de­rid­ing it as “a Jewish the­ory”.

After its vi­o­lent open­ing, the se­ries takes in Ein­stein’s teenage years dur­ing which, as a stu­dent, al­ready known as “a dis­obe­di­ent son, peren­nial tru­ant and un­re­pen­tant flouter of author­ity”, puz­zled and quizzi­cal, his brain for­ever rest­less, he is some­how grap­pling with the rel­a­tiv­ity of time, the in­ter­change­abil­ity of mass and en­ergy and the way space can stretch and warp.

With an un­shak­able be­lief in his own abil­i­ties, he seems to pos­sess an almost su­per­nat­u­ral feel­ing for the way that na­ture works, daz­zled by light beams that pen­e­trate the dark in­te­ri­ors of the class­rooms in which he re­luc­tantly and re­sent­fully spends his days. Th­ese class­room scenes are clev­erly jux­ta­posed with lec­tures the adult Ein­stein is giv­ing to his stu­dents in 1922. “What is time?” he asks them, echo­ing the queries of the ro­man­tic boy with his al­lur­ing brown eyes, dark wavy hair and a de­ter­mi­na­tion to solve life’s mys­ter­ies, played so con­vinc­ingly by the charis­matic Flynn, a star in the mak­ing. Rush as the older Ein­stein in the in­ter­cut se­quence bril­liantly puts across some com­plex and dense sci­ence, us­ing all his won­der­fully prac­tised theatri­cal­ity.

The most res­o­nant scene in the first episode, though, shows Ein­stein and his wife at­tempt­ing to em­i­grate to the US after Adolf Hitler be­comes chan­cel­lor of Ger­many. Vi­o­lence is break­ing out across Ger­many but the in­fa­mous J. Edgar Hoover is de­ter­mined to deny them en­try as un­de­sir­ables. In­ter­ro­gated rather mer­ci­lessly and em­bar­rass­ingly, the cou­ple is turned down as a threat to se­cu­rity. It’s a su­perb se­quence fea­tur­ing Vin­cent Kartheiser (Pete Camp­bell from Mad Men) as a con­sulate of­fi­cer in Berlin ques­tion­ing Ein­stein’s loy­al­ties.

Rush is won­der­ful as Ein­stein in the well­known crum­pled cloth­ing, baggy sweaters and that fright-wig coif­fure. But there’s noth­ing car­i­ca­tured about him, even though Rush char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally de­lights in his of­ten fruity hu­mour. And he has great fun with Ein­stein’s ado­ra­tion of the many women who were se­duced by him, a part of the great man’s life never re­vealed to us in school sci­ence classes as we strug­gled to un­der­stand his fa­mous equa­tion E=mc2. “One of the sur­prises was what a ladies’ man he was through­out his life,” Howard says, de­scrib­ing Ein­stein as more of a “bo­hemian au­thor than a rigid, dis­ci­plined sci­en­tist”.

Rush also con­vinc­ingly con­veys his alien­ation from his chil­dren (“quite mor­ti­fy­ing and dif­fi­cult ar­range­ments there”, the ac­tor says), and the ef­fects of his com­pli­cated mar­riages, his need for iso­la­tion and his deep un­der­stand­ing that his gift re­quired soli­tude in which to flourish, and the way he needed to keep ahead of the mun­dane prac­ti­cal­i­ties of life be­fore they sub­merged him. “There was no ma­li­cious in­tent, but the cu­rios­ity of all the forces that came on him, he would re­treat if his head was im­plod­ing and he was emo­tion­ally not able to deal with cer­tain things,” the ac­tor says.

Rush ap­peared in the afore­men­tioned Su­per Bowl in a sketch fo­cused on a bare­foot Ein­stein play­ing his vi­o­lin, a large clock tick­ing as the camera pans across a floor and desk strewn with sci­en­tific notes, equations flash­ing up as if shoot­ing through his head as he plays; it be­comes ap­par­ent the melody is Lady Gaga’s Bad Ro­mance. As the clip con­cludes, Rush joy­fully pulls Ein­stein’s iconic tongue-out face to the camera, as the show’s ti­tle comes up.

“There’s as much Grou­cho Marx in him as there is sci­en­tist, you know?” Rush says of his per­for­mance. “And a bit of Harpo as well. There’s footage of him talk­ing at the White House or in some big kind of con­gress-type sit­u­a­tion and he seems more in­ter­ested in the NBC mi­cro­phone. So there’s a nice clown in there to play with.” And it’s the pleas­ing play­ful­ness of this great per­for­mance that lingers in the mind, as it so of­ten does with any­thing this great ac­tor cre­ates. Mon­day, 8.30pm, Nat Geo

Ge­of­frey Rush as Albert Ein­stein

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