Proof: John Madden’s Screen Version of David Auburn Play, Starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jake Gyllenhaal

John Madden’s screen version of David Auburn’s prize-winning play is an engaging film about an enigmatic young woman (Gwyneth Paltrow), haunted by the genius of her father mathematician (Anthony Hopkins) and the shadow of her uncertain future. A cerebral drama that’s also emotionally moving, “Proof” explores the link between genius and madness, the tender yet complex relationship between an eccentric father and his loyal daughter, and the nature of truth in both academic and family life.

Madden’s adaptation is marred by three disappointing performances, an overly familiar Paltrow, again playing an anguish-ridden character, an over the top Hopkins as the mad father, and narrow interpretation of Hope Davis, as Paltrow’s overbearing yuppie sister, who’s made to be the villain.

Moreover, Madden’s middlebrow sensibility flattens the play’s edge, and tucked-upon ending is not only incongruous with the the story’s dominant tone but seems to belong to another film, turning “Proof” into a romantic serio-comedy, which it was not on stage.

Yet I recommend that you see the movie, whose main concerns are the different aspects of proof, what can be proven in math and what can be proven in human relationships. Auburn skilfully interweaves scientific, romantic and familial issues into his work. How do you restart a new relationship after betrayal Do we become our parents despite ourselves Who assumes responsibility for caring after them

The script, by Auburn and Rebecca Miller, overcomes several (but not all) pitfalls in transferring a theatrical property to the big screen. Except for the ending, the writing is good, the emotional landscape intense, and the seemingly simple story full of surprises.
The movie succeeds in dramatizing an esoteric subject like theoretical math, and it engages our attention without testing our knowledge about theorems. The math proof is at the core, but it’s woven into the drama without being obtrusive or off-putting.

Ultimately, though, despite efforts to open up the play with several outdoor scenes, the movie betrays its theatrical origins, with its small cast (four characters), limited sets, calculated exits and entrances, and curtain droppers (see below).

Madden is a good actors’ director, and his new collaboration with Paltrow (after the Oscar-winning “Shakespeare in Love”) yields largely positive results. Platrow played Catherine on stage at the Donmar under Madden’s direction.

Paltrow has played before complex artistic types, such as the suicidal writer Sylvia Platt in “Sylvia” and a literature professor in “Possession.” In “Proof,” she gives another credible and decent performance that draws on her instinctive fragility and ability to pull viewers to her side side.

Yet with all due respect, Paltrow is no Mary Louise Parker, a brilliant actress, perfectly cast in the stage production. Parker knows how to turn a sentence midway so that it resonates with multiple, often contradictory meanings, like no other actress. An appealing movie star, Paltrow is slightly older than the character she plays, who’s 27. I mention age and appearance because these factors might have worked against casting Parker, who’s a decade older than Paltrow and not “a name” in the marketplace. The filmmakers might have been concerned with the camera’s gaze, which is more merciless than the human eye in the theatre.

On the eve of her twenty-seventh birthday, Catherine, a shy woman who has spent years caring for her brilliant but unstable father, is at a crossroads. She has to deal not only with the arrival of her estranged sister, Claire (Hope Davis), but also with the attentions of Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), a former student of her father’s hoping to find valuable work in his old notebooks.

As Catherine confronts Hal’s affections and Claire’s overbearing plans for her life, she struggles to solve a most perplexing and debilitating/exhilarating (depending on the outcome) problem: How much of her father’s madness and genius will she inherit

Catherine has looked after Robert for twelve years. During his remission, when Robert resumes teaching, she goes to Northwestern (not Chicago) to study math but drops out when he relapses into illness. The three years prior to his death have been intolerably difficult, because her main job was to keep her father believe that he can live, namely, that he can work again.

Robert is at the heart of the movie and the key to its mystery. He’s a genius mathematician who had made startling scientific discoveries early on, before succumbing to schizophrenia and mental instability. These discoveries are powerful enough to convince Hal that more insights must be hidden amongst the work left behind.

Robert’s part calls for the disply of power and magnetism, with the occasional eruption of volcanic turbulence, and a balancing gentleness that allows us to understand his bond with Catherine; he’s obsessively proud of Catherine because she’s a brilliant mathematician as well. Hopkins conveys the leaps from strident bullying to intense vulnerability with skill, but it’s a studied, overbearingly theatrical performance.

Taking advantage of his passing acquaintance with Catherine, Hal asks to go through her father’s papers. Hal’s been attracted to Catherine, but he’s sensitive enough to know that the timing for his affection might be wrong. Hal’s convinced that Catherine should do everything to commemorate Robert; he feels this should be their joint responsibility–and passion.

Hal embarks on a journey during which he needs to learn how to love her for who she is, not just as his idol’s daughter. It’s a tough role, since Hal needs to encompass the math geek quotient, yet also play in a rock band, and he has to display an irresistible passion for the subject. Looking cool and handsome, Gyllenhaal brings to his role a blend of offbeat quality and warm decency.

Catherine has been reticent to put her father in an institution, hoping that eventualy he would snap out of it. Catherine and Robert are so close and connected that theyre really each other’s life force. Indeed, Robert’s death turns Catherine’s world upside down.

Catherine wants to be alone and resents the idea of anyone invading her house, the only place she feels “safe.” Worried that she might inherit her father’s mental instability, she clings to certain things that keep her sane. But after meeting Hal, she starts to let down her guard, make herself more available.

Claire is the intruding external force, and the villain of the piece, a woman who doesn’t understand her father or sister. Deep down, she’s jealous of Catherine because of her close and instinctive symbiotic relationship with their father. Claire has escaped, but she’s been supporting them from afar, which causes huge friction.

Catherine finds Caire’s intent to reorganize her life, both physically and emotionally, appalling. Claire decides that Catherine’s lifestyle is all wrong and determines to sell the house. Sweeping in, she begins to re-organize everything, upsetting the fragile balance.

“Proof” draws intriguing parallels between the world of math and ordinary life. In math, solutions to complex problems are found by applying a rigorous set of rules. Hypotheses are subjected to deductions that can lead, if the right route is taken, to an unequivocal result: Proof.

In real life, humans also search for solutions and proofs, but the rules are more subjective and fluid, and they must be negotiated. We crave certainty about our identities, knowledge, and relationships, but we have to draw conclusions from incomplete evidence. As a result, those conclusions seem provisional, invalid, and disturbing. “Proof” deals with those intangible values that are difficult to verify: trust, love, and sanity.

Having directed the play, Madden makes sure that every single word of the text is clear. On the stage’s intimate space, the physical world was stripped down to essentials, like the deck of the house its roof. The few sets ere effective because they isolated Catherine in a subjective space.

But in the film, Madden struggles to find a cinematic language that would honor the play, develop the mystery to engage our heads and hearts, and synchronize the story’s emotional resolution as well as the math’s solution. The film includes scenes only hinted at by the play, such as the funeral or the party scene, when Catherine and Hal finally consummate their affair. But these scenes are minor. In opening it up, Madden has lost the edge of the original work.

Furthermore, some theatrical devices are bothersome; astute viewers will be able to detect the play’s curtain closers. Consider the following. When Hal discovers a formula that might be revolutionary in math theory, he asks: “You knew about this,” “Yes,” Catherine replies. “When did you discover it” he asks. “I didn’t discover it,” Catherine says, “I wrote it!” This is how Act One ended in the play, and it’s too obvious for the movie.

Indeed, the usual tasks of cinematic adaptation are not entirely satisfying. Fundamental issues, such as whether to retain the time in which the play occurs, whether to work with long paragraphs of theatrical composition, or shorter ones more common in cinema, plague this version. What’s missing is the play’s intensity and singularity of focus.

Rebecca Miller’s contribution to the script was reportedly structural, expanding the act that precedes the beginning of the play, the circumstances that led Catherine to lock the proof in her father’s desk. One narrative, set in the present, reveals a mystery, and another narrative, set in the past, explains it. The one in the past ends by explaining the moment that began the story in the present. Madden aims to engage the audience in Catherine’s experience at two levels simultaneously: the objective, namely, what exactly happened, and the subjective, what might be true or imagined.

Though dealing with mental illness, ultimately “Proof” is too much of an uplifting story. By the end, Catherine is able to make all the necessary breakthroughs. But it’s the long and pianful process that’s the essence of the play and movie. Robert continues to be a force in Catherine’s life, especially after he dies; she feels the magnitude of the loss. Catherine needs to let go of one person, her father, in order to be able to fall in love with another, Hal, and at the same time, accept her own mind and genius.

As usual, Madden goes for the soothing and middlebrow, and here, he softens the play’s rough edges in favor of a clearer, more emotionally involving narrative. This approach should make “Proof” more accessible to mass audiences, at the price of divestingthe movie of the play’s ironies and ambiguities.

For the record:

David Auburn’s play premiered at the Manhattan Theater Club in May 2000 and transferred to Broadway in October 2000, where it became the longest running play since “Amadeus.” “Proof” won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Awards for Best Play, Director (Daniel Sullivan) and Actress (Mary Louise Parker).