For­mula with­out a proof

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - TARA BRADY DON­ALD CLARKE

X+Y Di­rected by Mor­gan Matthews. Star­ring Asa But­ter­field, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Ed­die Marsan, Martin McCann, Jo Yang. Cert 12A, se­lect re­lease, 111mins In 2007 a doc­u­men­tary chron­i­cling the se­lec­tion process and train­ing reg­i­men for the Bri­tish team at the 2006 In­ter­na­tional Math­e­mat­i­cal Olympiad (IMO) aired on BBC to much ac­claim. Un­sur­pris­ingly, some bright spark who saw that film – called Beau­ti­ful Young Minds – de­cided it had the po­ten­tial to be a ma­jor mo­tion pic­ture.

Well, in the­ory. In prac­tice, this nicely-shot, beau­ti­fully per­formed and well-told story al­ways feels a bit too in­ti­mate, a bit too telly to be Billy El­liot with sums.

Loosely in­spired by the life of math­e­mat­i­cal prodigy Daniel Lightwing, Mor­gan Matthews’s movie strives to find the warm heart un­der the cold, clin­i­cal sur­face of a hu­man cal­cu­la­tor with Asperger syn­drome.

Work­ing from a care­fully in­formed script, Asa But­ter­field does good work at ap­prox­i­mat­ing the high-func­tion­ing end of the autis­tic spec­trum. Just as his char­ac­ter, a whizz named Nathan, finds (and of­ten de­mands) pat­terns and primes in un­likely places, John Gra­ham’s screen­play plots out var­i­ous in­ter­per­sonal re­la­tion- ships. The trou­bled co-de­pen­dency be­tween Nathan and his heart­break­ingly soft mum (Hawkins) takes cen­tral stage here, but there are, ad­di­tion­ally, sev­eral in­trigu­ing sub-re­la­tion­ships, no­tably be­tween Nathan and his pot-smok­ing maths coach with MS, Mr Humphries (Spall, ex­cel­lent) and the blos­som­ing hints of ro­mance be­tween Nathan and his Chi­nese coun­ter­part, Zhang Mei (Yang).

Smaller char­ac­ters are oc­cu­pied and made mean­ing­ful by such watch­able tal­ents as Ed­die Marsan and Martin McCann.

Un­hap­pily, this ul­ti­mately feels like a for­mula with­out a proof: X+Y is plenty charm­ing and life-af­firm­ing but it never quite en­tices the viewer into math­e­mat­ics in the same way that a film such as Spell­bound se­duces us into the won­der­ful world of the Spell­ing B. IN A HOUSE THAT CEASED TO BE Di­rected by Ciarín Scott. Club, IFI, Dublin, 91 min It’s hard to imag­ine that we will see a more mov­ing film this year than this doc­u­men­tary about the in­domitable, proudly ec­cen­tric Christina Noble.

As well as of­fer­ing an un­for­giv­ing de­nun­ci­a­tion of the poi­sonous sym­bio­sis that once ex­isted be­tween Catholic Church and Ir­ish State, In a House That Ceased to Be also man­ages – more en­cour­ag­ingly – an ar­gu­ment for com­mon de­cency that some­how avoids sen­ti­men­tal­ity. “Love is so pow­er­ful and strong,” No­bel tells a young, pro­foundly dis­abled Viet­namese girl. “And we don’t even have to pay for it.”

The Dubliner’s be­lief in the po­tency of love seems all the more re­mark­able when you con­sider the wretched­ness of her up­bring­ing. The story will be known from news­pa­per re­ports and from the ad­mirable re­cent biopic star­ring Deirdre O’Kane, but this digs deeper into the his­tor­i­cal grime than some view­ers may find com­fort­able.

Four decades be­fore she be­gan as­sist­ing home­less chil­dren in Viet­nam and Mon­go­lia, Noble and her three sib­lings were sep­a­rated by the au­thor­i­ties and dis­patched to var­i­ous hor­ri­ble Church-run in­sti­tu­tions. One of the film’s most re­mark­able scenes finds its sub­ject (a su­perb swearer, by the way) fum­ing out­side one such or­phan­age.

“I can’t tell you what they did to my sis­ters,” she rants. An­other at­tempt is made at con­trol. It fails. “Hand in glove!” she spits, re­mem­ber­ing that coali­tion be­tween Church and State. Her brother’s calm de­tail­ing of spe­cific cru­el­ties are, if any­thing, even more pow­er­ful.

Direc­tor Ciarín Scott cer­tainly has a peach of a sub­ject (charis­matic, funny, prob­a­bly hard to live with), but it can’t be de­nied that he makes the very best of the fe­cund ma­te­rial. Shoot­ing on widescreen in such dis­parate lo­cales as Mon­go­lia, Viet­nam, Texas and Brighton, he breaks up the in­ter­changes with vis­tas of great beauty. The fi­nal grace­ful track­ing shot honours a painfully ten­der re­la­tion­ship.

Not to be missed.

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