It’s pretty clear these days that there are more women than men at university. Classes in law, humanities, the biosciences and medicine are all female dominated, so it was pretty strange to walk into my 400 level PHIL classes and find a ratio of men to women somewhere in the order of six to one. The situation is the same in mathematics. Given this scenario I can understand the disbelief that incites dramatic tension in Proof.
Gwyneth Paltrow gives a raw and admirable performance as Catherine, the daughter of a once brilliant mathematician (Anthony Hopkins) who descended into insanity late in his life. She may or may not have discovered an important mathematical proof, but struggles to convince her sister and her late father’s male PhD student that it is hers.
For all you math virgins out there, there is no need to fear. This story runs in the same vein as A Beautiful Mind and it is not the discovery, nor the maths, that drives the action. Rather it is the catastrophic collision between trust and doubt. This struggle is squeezed by the spectre of mental illness and the insecurity of non-belief until faith is destroyed and only scepticism and betrayal remain.
The screenplay is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by David Auburn and carries its theatrical qualities onto the big screen. The sets are claustrophobic and static and the drama materializes from long, emotional, staccato exchanges between the protagonists. This is quality dirty realism, without the support of make-up or mood music.
The transitions from dream state to waking life, from past to present, are seamless, and this smoothness enhances our experience of the delusions suffered by Catherine’s father, and perhaps by Catherine herself. We truly share in her fear that what she experiences is unreal, and in her terror and anxiety about the uncertain future of her mind. Proof is a poignant contrast between the rational and material worlds, between mentality and reality.
Catherine is afraid of the big empty locked house that is her mind. She’s afraid of going inside in case she can’t escape. She’s afraid of tumbling from her youthful mental peak into her father’s cold lonely world of insanity, and Catherine’s terror is compounded by her obsessive-compulsive sister’s hypocritical doubt.
Proof really works. It reaches out and clutches you close in desperation. The performances are sharp and controlled and the film doesn’t attempt too much. It is refreshing quality British drama, only surprisingly, it was made in America.
Directed by John Madden