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