Ein­stein: the fact and the the­ory

For its first scripted TV se­ries, Ge­nius, Na­tional Geo­graphic has en­listed ac­tor Ge­of­frey Rush and di­rec­tor Ron Howard to re­veal the ec­cen­tric­i­ties, mis­for­tunes and tri­umphs of sci­ence’s great­est thinker, writes Greg Kennedy

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Long be­fore “Ein­stein” be­came an ad­jec­tive to denote ge­nius, it was sim­ply the name of a sci­en­tist whose vi­sion upended our view of the uni­verse and mat­ter it­self.

But a shroud of mys­tery con­tin­ues to sur­round the man, es­pe­cially re­gard­ing his volatile, pas­sion­ate and com­plex per­sonal re­la­tion­ships.

Start­ing to­day, Ge­nius, Na­tional Geo­graphic Chan­nel’s first scripted se­ries, pulls back the cur­tain to re­veal how Al­bert the man be­came Ein­stein the icon.

It is a global tele­vi­sion event, a retelling of his tu­mul­tuous life in 10 episodes that will be broad­cast in 171 coun­tries and 45 lan­guages.

“We all know of his ge­nius, his gifts,” says Ron Howard, the di­rec­tor of the first episode and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of the se­ries.

“But Al­fred Ein­stein’s pri­vate life is far more com­pli­cated and dra­matic than, cer­tainly, I ever re­alised. And there’s a very hu­man story to be told here.”

Howard’s knack for por­tray­ing ge­nius on screen is well- estab­lished. He won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Di­rec­tor for A Beau­ti­ful Mind, which de­picted the tor­tured re­al­ity of math­e­mat­i­cal prodigy John Forbes Nash Jr, as por­trayed by Rus­sell Crowe.

In telling the story of Ein­stein, Howard has re­cruited a dream team of tal­ent. As the older Ein­stein, the ever-mas­ter­ful Ge­of­frey Rush yet again dis­plays his flair for play­ing uncommon men, adding to a re­sume that in­cludes: Cap­tain Bar­bossa in the Pi­rates of the Caribbean films, a speech coach to Ge­orge VI in The King’s Speech (2010), and a bril­liant, trou­bled pi­anist in Shine (1996), for which he won an Os­car. Join­ing Rush as a younger Al­bert in the years be­fore he rose to fame is Johnny Flynn ( Clouds of Sils Maria, Lovesick), and Emily Wat­son ( The The­ory of Ev­ery­thing) as his sec­ond wife Elsa. The se­ries also stars Samantha Col­ley ( The Cru­cible), T R Knight ( Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Wife), Seth Ga­bel ( Salem) and Vin­cent Kartheiser ( Mad Men).

In a retelling shaped by Wal­ter Isaac­son’s book, Ein­stein: His Life and Uni­verse, we meet him as a imag­i­na­tive, re­bel­lious thinker who rose from hum­ble ori­gins. While Ein­stein, the the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist, un­locked the cos­mos with his the­ory of relativity, and was a bit of a play­ful joker with crazy hair, he could also un­leash cal­lous emo­tions on those clos­est to him, in­clud­ing his chil­dren, two wives and the women with whom he had ex­tra-mar­i­tal af­fairs.

“Ron was very keen to take the el­e­ments of Ein­stein’s life, that it not fall into the trap of be­ing a biopic,” says 65-year-old Rush. “The story of Ein­stein’s life is sand­wiched be­tween a ma­jor break­through pe­riod of sci­ence in the late-19th cen­tury, and through the dev­as­ta­tion of the two world wars. He wanted that to have real dra­matic kick.”

Through sto­ry­telling that is ex­cit­ing, rather than rigid and for­mal, we fol­low the tra­jec­tory of Ein­stein’s life through an era of global un­rest: as a Jewish man fac­ing ris­ing anti- Semitism in Europe, sur­veil­lance by spies, and the po­ten­tial for atomic an­ni­hi­la­tion. Through it all, he strug­gles as a hus­band and a fa­ther, not to men­tion as a man of prin­ci­ple, even when his life is put in jeop­ardy.

With a youth­ful, en­er­getic vis­ual style, Ge­nius serves up a pe­riod feast. It was filmed amid the ar­chi­tec­tural splen­dour of his­toric Prague – where Ein­stein lived and taught early in his ca­reer – with au­then­tic cos­tumes made from vin­tage ma­te­rial, and de­tail from the era ac­cu­rate right down to the light switches.

“My favourite thing is the [cos­tume] f it­tings, and Mil­eva’s bows,” says Col­ley, who plays Mil­eva Maric, Ein­stein’s first wife. “When I put on one of her bows, I feel my­self shift­ing into her.” Rush high­lights the sheer am­bi­tion of the pro­duc­tion.

“This is one of the great parts – and the scale of it so big,” he says. “I had to con­sider the whole idea of ge­nius in my prepa­ra­tion for the role, and I found the most fan­tas­tic, pithy ep­i­thet from the philoso­pher Arthur Schopen­hauer: ‘ Tal­ent hits a tar­get no one else can hit. Ge­nius hits a tar­get no one else can see.’”

starts at 3pm to­day on Nat Geo Chan­nel, with re­peats through­out the week.

Cour­tesy Dusan Mart­incek / Na­tional Geo­graphic

Ge­of­frey Rush as sci­en­tist Al­bert Ein­stein in Na­tional Geo­graphic’s Ge­nius.

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