"Proof", directed by John Madden ("Shakespeare In Love") and based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by David Auburn, features fine performances by Anthony Hopkins, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jake Gyllenhaal. But...
After her father (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant mathematician, dies, Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow), also a fine mathematician in her own right, fears she might have inherited her father's madness. Dad's student advisor, Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes over, under the pretense of helping her organize his papers, but she suspects he may be foraging through her father's office to find some hidden work, to publish under his own name. Her sister, Claire (Hope Davis), a controlling busybody, arrives from New York in time for the funeral. Claire is concerned about her sister and wants her to move to New York with her. Hal manages to convince Catherine that he is looking out for her, and her father's best interest, so Catherine gives him a notebook containing a proof for a previously unsolved problem. Hal is amazed and certain that it should be published. Then Catherine reveals that she wrote it. Claire and Hal don't believe her and Catherine becomes despondent.
Basing a film on a play is a tricky thing. A dramatic play is a very different beast from a film. When you are watching a dramatic play, your attention is focused on the actor speaking their lines. As the story unfolds, one or two other characters may enter and exit the scene. When the scene is over, the scenery changes and a new scene begins. When you adapt such a thing to film, you have the opportunity to "open up" the action; to expand the scope and breadth of the characters and their movements. In a film, you can cut back and forth between different places in the same timeline. More than two or three actors can appear on screen at one time. Some filmed adaptations do this very well, making you forget you the source material was ever performed on a stage. Others, not so well. "Proof" is about halfway between.
The film is clearly adapted from a play. Catherine is the main character and she is one screen for almost the entire film. In every scene, she only interacts with one or two characters and the action rarely moves from her house or her father's classroom. It seems very "stagy".
The thing that saves "Proof" is the acting. The first scene, with Paltrow and Hopkins threatens to bring the film down to the level of "Closer", one of the worst `play-to-film' adaptations I have ever seen; "I love you." "No, I love you." Paltrow's Catherine is having a conversation with her father, yet they never touch and they always stand a few feet away. Hmmm. I wonder if he is dead? Sure, enough. But the secret is never really a secret. We know he dies, so why even have the pretense?
But after this initial attempt by the writer to prove how clever he is, we start to get to know the characters and their complexities and enjoy the acting.
Hopkins is a great actor and if anyone can make a crazy person seem real, it is Hopkins. I remember hearing a conversation with Michael Caine. He said that the best way to play someone drunk is to not slur your words and do all of the stereotypical things. And he is right. If you have ever seen Caine play drunk, he plays it perfectly. Hopkins seems to follow this same rule. He is a man who is crazy, yet he doesn't have continuous yelling episodes, claim he is Napoleon, or any of the other stereotypes. He simply becomes quiet at times and excited at others. Clearly, he is losing his mental faculty, as evidenced by the fact that he is very sad, sad that he is no longer the brilliant thinker he once was. When he has a moment of inspiration, and believes that he might be able to work again, he excitedly announces his plans to his daughter.
Paltrow is good, but she is a bit too hysterical through most of the film for my liking. She yells a lot, cries a lot and is generally unpleasant as she copes with the loss of her father and the possible loss of her sanity. The best scene involves Catherine and Hal. As they become closer to one another, Hal leans in and kisses her. She is very vulnerable, because she hasn't had a relationship in a long time. After they make love, she isn't immediately a happy, lovely new person, as so many films portray. She is still morose and in mourning, but more calm.
Jake Gyllenhaal is also good. Hal is a bit of a mystery for the first part of the film as we are unsure if he is trying to steal the professor's work. Unfortunately, the story makes this pretty clear about halfway through, when the mystery turns to whether Catherine actually authored the work. Towards the end, his character becomes a bit superfluous, but until that point, he is interesting to watch.
Throughout the entire film, there are two or three scenes with large groups of people. Beyond that, we never see more than two or three people together at any time. The film attempts to open up Catherine's character by flashing back to other points in her life. But even these flashbacks only have two or three people in them. Because of this, the film feels claustrophobic and dense. I'm sure this is intended to give Catherine an extra level of dimension, but what it does is make the film seem small.
"Proof" is a good film, but painting the same story on a larger landscape would have made the film seem more significant and interesting. Instead, it seems like we are watching a filmed presentation of the play, like they used to do for PBS. I don't mind watching these on PBS, but I don't like paying $8 or $10 to watch it. I would rather go see the play.