Apart from Geography, Mathematics was probably my least favourite subject at school. I was a standard grade student who enjoyed hanging out with the other higher grade rejects more than I did putting together numbers on a page. So, it was with some surprise that I found myself highly absorbed in Proof, a film that has a mathematical theory as one of the centre points of its story.
With the death of her father – a brilliant but insane mathematician (Anthony Hopkins) – Catherine (Gwyenth Paltrow) finally has an opportunity to return to a life of normalcy after years of caring for him. Her transition back to the ‘real’ world, however, is disrupted by a deep rooted sense that she may have inherited her father’s insanity. Her deep inner struggle is further complicated by the arrival of her sister (Hope Davis) and a student of her father’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) – who is convinced that her dad left behind some coherent mathematical writing before his death.
When Proof started, my heart sank; it appeared to have all the makings of another heavy-handed drama starring Gwyenth Paltrow. I was wrong. I don’t have anything against Paltrow in particular (I will say she and her husband were quite stupid naming their child after a fruit) but as a performer she is extremely accomplished and knows how to dig deep when needed. She, however, always seems to star in the same kinds of films.
But my perceptions of the film were challenged when the concept of a mathematical proof, or equation, was introduced as a major plot point. The question of whether Catherine wrote this proof or simply stole it from her father becomes the central drive of the film and, at the same time, becomes a way to prove if she is crazy or not. With this introduction, the film undergoes a change from drama to ‘mystery-drama’. I was hooked. The proof in question has no real-world connection and is not explained in any great detail (and has been challenged for being mathematically poor) but as a filmic device it works fantastically in driving the narrative.
It functions as a McGuffin; a Hitchcockian device that is used to grab an audience’s attention but is ultimately not that important in the characters’ real journeys. In other words, the maths in Proof is a clever device that alludes to complex maths – that I could never really understand – and uses it as a way to test Catherine’s sanity.
Based on the Pulitzer winning play of the same name, Proof was always going to have great dialogue and performances. Claire, Catherine’s doubting sister, is played superbly by Hope Davis. Davis was seen recently in The Matador and the neurotic energy that she brings to her performance makes it stand out one amongst the other acting giants who also star in this film. Her controlling demeanour and mistrust of her own sister makes her one of those characters you love to hate. Hopkins and Paltrow are … well, Hopkins and Paltrow, I can’t fault them. And (easy on the eye) Brokeback star Jake Gyllenhaal does a great job too. As an ensemble these actors just scream class.
Moving from stage to screen Proof has not brought with it any baggage from the stage. Certain stage adaptations I have seen often retain a claustrophobic sense of the theatre; this can be seen in the dialogue (too wordy for a realist film) and in the limited use of the camera. Proof has none of these problems and is finely crafted by director John Madden.
I was sad to have the film end without more explanation of ‘the proof’ but, then again, more explanation would only have destroyed the world that had been created around it. As a concept, I believed – almost as much as the characters in the film – that it could change the world of mathematics. For me to talk about maths in this manner is testament to how absorbed I was in Proof and how darn good it actually is.