BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 10, 2005
Everything Is Illuminated
John Madden, the English director of theater and film, is best known in this country for Shakespeare in Love, though Ethan Frome and Mrs. Brown were also exceptional. Gwyneth Paltrow is a gifted actress who needs a good director. Other directors have helped her, but her performance in the Shakespeare picture under Madden’s hand took her into new reaches. Now Madden and Paltrow are paired again—in a venture that entailed risks.
David Auburn’s play Proof, which won a Pulitzer Prize, has been adapted for the screen by Auburn and Rebecca Miller. It concerns Catherine (played by Paltrow), the daughter of a famous mathematician at the University of Chicago who had been suffering mental lapses and has recently died. The very first scene puts us on guard: Catherine has a conversation with her deceased father who is quite visible and audible. (Anthony Hopkins enjoys the role.) We immediately wonder whether this is going to be a misty work about a revenant or whether Catherine is imagining the conversation. More in hope than anything else, we opt for the latter, and are sustained. In flashback scenes she has many conversations with her father, back when he was alive, and has more postmortem chats, so we can infer that he continues in her mind, not as a ghost but as a permanent companion.
Involved, too, is Catherine’s sister, Claire (Hope Davis, an intelligent actress). She works in the New York business world and has come to Chicago for the funeral but also to take Catherine back with her. Claire is fearful that her sister, who has dropped her own math studies, may also be on the edge of mental imbalance. The sisters quarrel, sometimes lovingly. Also very present is a young math graduate student at Chicago, Hal (pleasantly played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who has arguments and an affair with Catherine.
Hal is mining all 103 of the father’s remaining notebooks in search of treasures. The crux of the story is a notebook that contains a world-shaking math discovery. (Is there any other kind in films?) This notebook may possibly have been written by Catherine, not her father. Proof is careful not to decide.
Of course the title has multiple meanings. The matter of mathematical proof, the proof of who wrote the brilliant math discovery, the very concept of proof itself—these aspects are inherent in the title. The drama of the sisters and Hal and the past-and-present father drags a bit because some of the time it seems to be not much more than elevated bickering. All in all, this is the sort of work that gets credit for more gravity than it genuinely possesses, merely because of its subject.
The risk in this project for Madden was that, for all the flexing that Auburn and Miller did, the script is still essentially a play. For decades now, this has not meant that the original had to be blatantly “cinematized,” but it does mean that the script tends toward development in situ without film’s basic urge to move physically onward. A director of Madden’s sensibility knows that a key requirement is to “cinematize” the acting whether or not the cast is from the theater. To play for an audience of one that is only a few feet away is different in concentration and shade from playing in the theater, and Madden, though the script lags a bit, has nonetheless helped his actors to render what were once theater scenes as film sequences.
For Paltrow the risk was in her very acceptance of the part. Madden’s presence must have been a factor, but Catherine is not a character designed to win an audience. She is neurotic—a catchall term that here includes anger, fear, spite, and outbursts of affection that have little to do with a desire to be liked. Catherine was a high-wire role for an actress who may be evolving into a star. With Madden’s help, Paltrow confirms her quality by never playing for sympathy.
When Liev Schreiber had his first major Broadway role in Harold Pinter’s Moonlight in 1994, it was clear that someone of potential importance had arrived. The word “magic” has been worn to banality, or it would serve to describe the effect. Schreiber walked onstage as if the universe had been designed for him to do so. Naturally he was soon tapped for films. His choice of film roles has been spotty, still he has moved upward in regard, and now he has directed a film. It would be structurally neat to say that this debut parallels his acting debut, but it doesn’t. His directing is ambitious, but it is nowhere near the originality and truth in his acting. Throughout the film we can feel him striving to control, to invent, to glisten.
He made his own adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated, whose theme is that the past illuminates the present. Not having read the book, I can’t comment on Schreiber’s adapting skill: I can say only that the screenplay obediently follows an almost visible blueprint until it reaches a mildly moving finish, and then goes on for a while after it is over.
The leading character bears the author’s name, though this is not autobiography. He is a young American Jew who is fascinated by his family’s history, especially as it winds through twentieth-century European history and the Holocaust. To find out who helped his grandfather to escape the Germans, Jonathan goes to the Ukraine (the picture was actually shot in the Czech Republic). Throughout the film he wears a formal suit, white shirt, and black tie; this denotes, not quite with subtlety, that he is a visitor to this milieu. He engages a guide and a driver to help him find the village of his family’s origin. The guide and the driver are colorful characters of the fictional kind that seem to be waiting offscreen for a story like this to come along. The guide is a youngish rogue who speaks fractured American slang. The driver is his grandfather, a grouch who likes to pretend to be blind and who turns out to have depths. This pair insists on taking with them their dog—called Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. The whimsy warnings are thus well flashed, in contrast with a subject that could hardly be more grim.
Jonathan and these two and the dog travel along in a shabby car, having a series of minor incidents that are intended, like the driver and the guide, to be savory, “European.” Their travels are accompanied by jaunty music meant to make the story quaintly adventurous but which only emphasizes that it is not. At last, in a small house in the middle of a gorgeous field of sunflowers, they meet an elderly woman who eventually answers the questions that Jonathan is asking. The face of that elderly woman, played by Laryssa Lauret, is the film’s chief reward. Lauret’s performance is, in fact, too lovely for this strained quasi-comedy.
Elijah Wood plays Jonathan like a life-size puppet. The idea of the engulfing of an ultra-neat American youth by European bizarrerie, the attempts at flavorful characters, the eager music, the camera’s color-splashes—these remain manipulated elements in a film that explains some things but illuminates nothing. Judgment on Schreiber’s directing future is not needed; but I certainly hope that he will not give up acting.
This article originally ran in the October 10, 2005 issue of the magazine.