Directed by John Madden
Screenplay adapted by David Auburn from his stage-play
The new film from Director John Madden, adapted by David Auburn from his own Tony Award-winning stage play is an affecting and thoughtful small character piece, deftly translated to the new medium. It is a "family drama," but without melodrama - a story of people - and particularly one person - coming to terms with past and present, and moving toward the future.
If that sounds like a bit of a cliché, a parallel to the "Boy meets Girl - Boy loses Girl - Boy finds Girl" polt line - well, all "true" common experience is the stuff of truisms. There is no earth-shatteringly original insight into family and personal dynamics here - simply a well-told tale of how a particular variation on the age-old themes of upbringing, family, loss, love and longing manifests among a particular set of characters.
Auburn's approach is highly personal rather than "psychological" in any dogmatic or clinical sense. The characters involved are Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a young woman who is the talented daughter of a brilliant and reknowned but mentally-unstable mathematician (Anthony Hopkins); her ambitious, somewhat shallow and self-absorbed sister Claire (Hope Davis); and her father's young teaching assistant and Doctoral Program advisee Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Each exhibits a combination of repressions, blind-spots, impulsivness, fixed ideas, fears and prejudices, that are evident in personalities ranging from the mildly neurotic to the profoundly disturbed. But Auburn treats them as people, rather than masses of clinical symptoms, inviting us to see how like our world theirs is, and how the explorations they make and the things they discover might find parallels in our own lives.
As the film opens, Robert has recently and suddenly died, at the age of 63, from an aneurism. Catherine has been his companion throughout his periods of mental instability - essentially withdrawing from the world (and her own life) for the final couple of years and acting as a full-time caretaker.
Claire arrives - after having left home and father to pursue her own career and life in New York City - to help settle family affairs and arrange matters for her insecure and somewhat reclusive younger sister. Hal - who has long been attracted to Catherine - wants permission to go through Robert's more than 165 notebooks (one manifestation of his mental illness was "graphomania" - a compulsion to write constantly ) hoping that the brilliant mind he demonstrated as a young man might have left some flashes of illumination among the pages.
What unfolds is a voyage of discovery, for all involved, but especially for the sensitive Catherine, whose attention to her father has been both loving homage to him, and an effective device to avoid confronting the need to make her own decisions and build her own life, and the fears that awakens in her. Her identification with and internalization of her father's personality - signified by their mutual mathematical brilliance and their nearly identical handwriting - is symbolized by his "reappearance" to council and comfort her, both in memory (through flashbacks) and in spirit-like manifestations.
No one who has grown to adulthood and spent any time at all looking at his or her family history can doubt the fact that our parents "remain with us" in a very real sense, throughout our lives - even after their death. They leave an empty space of a particular size and shape in our lives that continues to define one of the felt boundaries of who we define ourselves to be.
Though we may, over time, relocate this "space" radically, alter its "size and shape," and "fill it in" partially or completely, the imprint of the original configuration remains as part of the "fossil record" of our individual consciousness. Proof is a film about coming to terms with that dynamic.
But wisely, it doesn't seek to be either comprehensive or general. Auburn, as I said above, personalizes this universal process in order to make it more accessible, more dramatic, and more directly affecting. This isn't a treatise about "family constellations," it's a story whose characters can engage us, and whose struggles and choices, while to some extent reflecting our own, belong specifically to them.
It's a judicious writing choice, one that keeps the film from becoming "preachy" or contrived, as the characters' actions arise out of their individual needs, fears and desires - out of fully-imagined human beings rather than from an author with a particular perspective to push. It keeps the movie in the realm of "story" rather than allowing it to drift into the much more problematic ground of "allegory."
The film makes the point - by implication - that the "Big Issues" of life, death, meaning, accomplishment, normalcy, are actually dealt with on the small stage of each day's actions and decisons, and that in the end we have nothing to show for all the sturm und drang but - at best - our own sense of our life, hopefully well and lovingly lived. Another cliché? Sure - but one expressed with elegance and conviction, and that strikes a touching and believable note.
Madden is an acomplished director, whose previous films include 1993's Ethan Frome, 1997's Her Majesty Mrs Brown (which earned an Academy Award nomination for Judy Dench) and 1998's Shakespeare in Love (which earned Oscars for Dench and "Best Actress" Paltrow, as well as five others, and six nominations, including Madden for Best Director) He handles the material with appropriate reserve and delicacy. He relies on his cast and the screenplay rather than on elaborate directorial cleverness, and the result is a direct, uncluttered sort of storytelling.
Madden balances the various aspects of film technique, from music and cinematography to costumes, design and actors performances with a steady but obviously light hand, allowing powerhouses Hopkins and Paltrow to develop their characters' chemistry deliberately and naturally. He works with Auburn to keep secondary plot elements - like Claire's ill-concieved attempt at caretaking and Hal's struggles within his PhD. program - balanced, without either trivializing them, nor losing focus on the kernel of the story.
The excellent cast do their part. Hopkins amazes and inspires as - even at this point in his career where he is an established eminence and could get paid just for putting his name on the marquee (as many fine actors from John Barrymore, and Brando to DeNiro have) - he shows remarkable depth and dexterity in expressing a complex mixture of elements in Robert's character. He obviously enjoys working with Paltrow, and their scenes together tenderly and painfully express the complex dance of approach and avoidance, inter- and independence that makes up the relationship between this exceptional father and his remarkable daughter.
Paltrow keeps up her end. Her introverted, slightly-nerdy math-whiz is precisely delineated and never shades over into caricature. Her tender concern for her father, never patronizing and always with something of awe in it for the miraculous combination of intellectual mastery and practical helplessness he represents, is beautifully detailed in her performance.
Her relationships with Claire and Hal, likewise, are drawn with delicate care. The combination of pain and fear on the one hand and joyful anticipation on the other toward which her new-found sense of herself leads her in both those relationships is skillfully indicated by convincing work between Paltrow and the other actors.
Hope Davis here plays against the slightly naive, gawky, lovable image she's projected in most of her roles with great effect. She dives into the character and never comes up. She manages to make Claire's brittle, desperate efficiency and overweening "caring" for her sister communicate the character's insecurity and ambivalence as clearly as any more "direct" representation possibly could - and in the end, she makes Claire abrasive and manipulative, but also manages to suggest the springs of insecurity, vulnerability and self-doubt from which those tendencies arise.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays - but never overplays - Hal's geeky charm and basic decency with great confidence. His slightly off-kilter looks - far from the Hollywood Pretty-Boy stereotype - make him more believable in the role than many of his contemporaries might have been. He brings a warmth and a sincerity, as well as a level-headed and tolerant acceptance of Catherine's family's more difficult aspects, that helps to ground and balance the film.
The camera work is never flashy, but always thoughtful. The camera always seems to be in the right place to capture an image that adds an overtone to the story, whether it's picking up Robert in circles of light surrounded by darkness in his backyard or his study, or following Catherine through the blurred, impersonal, disorienting setting of the airport-as-limbo, as she "escapes" into her own life.
The music is unobtrusive and appropriate. Madden doesn't generally try to substitute musical underlining of his plot points for good storytelling. But what music there is - most notably the band sequences , which feel as gritty and goofy as they should - helps to give a feel of the events occurring in a very particular time and place. The sets ( and this is basically a one-set show - the environs of the Professor's slightly- down-at-the-heels Arts and Crafts home) are carefully - but not fussily - dressed and prepared.
As in his previous films, Madden shows a mastery of blending powerful performances (Joseph Finnes and Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, Dench and Billy Conolly in Mrs. Brown, Liam Neeson, Patricia Arquette and Joan Allen in Ethan Frome) with all the other elements of film-craft, to produce a piece of work that feels exceptionally solid, focused and carefully-made, not in the least artificial.
While there is no "knock your socks off" impact, the end product is a touching, meaningful story that leaves lots of room for audience involvement and imagination. Proof is Madden at the top of his form, working with a well-written script and a fine ensemble cast, exploring basic human situations in a very specific and engaging way through accessible, appealing characters - a thoughtful, hopeful, evocative evening at the movies.
But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.z