Formula without a proof
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.