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Culture: Not such a beautiful sum of its parts; Mike Davies takes a look at the week's cinema releases.

Byline: Mike Davies

A Beautiful Mind

Cert 12, 135 mins

In 1947 John Forbes Nash, Jr, a handsome, arrogant and oddball graduate student from West Virginia, arrived at Princeton University to study mathematics.

Two years later, aged 21, he wrote a paper on game theory, the mathematics of competition, a 27-page PhD thesis that demonstrated how you could transform such decisions as whether to marry, accept a job or simply choose whether to take the first lift or wait for the next one, into calculations of advantage and disadvantage.

In 1994, he was awarded the Nobel prize for economic science in recognition of his pioneering work. It was an amazing triumph. Amazing because, in 1958, singled out as the star of the 'new mathematics' and by then working at MIT, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, an illness that led to terrible delusions, repeated spells in psychiatric hospitals and the virtual cessation of his work.

Fighting back, with the help of devoted wife Alicia, Nash finally overcame his illness sufficiently to resume teaching.

It's Shine with algebra rather than Rachmaninov and, as documented in Sylvia Nasar's biography, Nash's story forms the inspiration for Ron Howard's film, one that has already lifted a trophy cabinet full of awards and is firm favourite to scoop most of its seven Oscars nominations, among them best film, director, screenplay and actor and supporting actress gongs for Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connolly. Does it warrant them? When you add it all up, the answer is no.

Stating that it's not intended as a faithful account of Nash's life but the experience of it allows Howard and writer Akiva Goldsman to dispense with facts that might prove inconvenient to its uplifting portrait of tortured genius and the human spirit unconditionally triumphing over adversity through the power of love.

Facts like Nash's illegitimate son, homosexual liaisons, a history of violent behaviour, snobbery and divorce from Alica in 1963.

It's also worth noting that of all the characters in the film, only Nash and Alicia are not fictional.

Does any of this lessen Nash's achievement? Absolutely not but why risk making him less audience - and Oscar - friendly by not softening the edges? Even his standoffishness towards his fellow Princeton students is imbued with humour and portrayed as somehow loveable eccentricity, sanctioned by their class prejudices.

A master of formula, Howard of course knows how to crunch those emotional response numbers and engage his audience in the equation. We cheer Nash on as he finally hits upon his Big Idea while down the pub calculating the maths of getting laid as his colleagues eye up a stunning blonde. We warm as he falls for pretty, bright student Alica (Connolly).

We thrill to the suspense as he's recruited by a shadowy government agent (Ed Harris) to decipher Commie messages hidden in magazines. We're amazed when the twist is revealed. Then torn up as we see Nash come apart, enduring insulin shock treatment and spells in institutions.

We hold our breath as he leaves his baby in the bath and we're moved to tears as he rationalises how to handle his mental problems and finally steps up to receive his Nobel Prize.

Crowe sinks his teeth into all this with every physical tic and vocal nuance the academy likes to see from actors 'doing' mental illness (a popular theme this year with Iris and I Am Sam also competing in the disability league) and despite the obvious showboating is an undeniably compellingly screen presence. There's another star-making turn too from Paul Bettany as Nash's garrulous confidante Charles, but the only note of honest emotion in this ultimately cynical film is supplied by Connolly who breathes palpable life into the long-suffering, devoted Alicia and alone deserves to walk off with the golden man.

The Son's Room

Cert 15, 87 mins subtitled

If mental illness is an awards magnet so too is bereavement. Arriving a week before the similarly-themed and Oscar-nominated In The Bedroom, Italian director-diarist Nanni Moretti's first work of fiction in a decade picked up the Palm D'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival (though was snubbed for best foreign language Oscar nomination) for its story of the corrosive effect their son's accidental death has on a middle-class Italian family.

Dispensing calming wisdom to his neurotic patients, Giovanni (Moretti) is a successful small town psychoanalyst, happily married to career woman Paolo (Laura Morante) and enjoying a good relationship with their two teenage kids, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice) and Irene (Jasmine Trinca).

Their life is so contented and harmonious, it's almost inviting disaster. And that's exactly what happens.

Andrea's senseless death in a diving accident fragments the family, slowly cracking it apart. Paolo and Irene find an outlet for their grief, in anguish and anger but Giovanni buries his within, eaten away with guilt because his son only went swimming after he had to cancel their quality time to see a patient.

All this helpless 'if only' exposes his own insecurities and poisons his relationships with his family and patients until a letter arrives from a girl Andrea met on holiday, offering perhaps some kind of key to catharsis and closure. If only they can bring themselves to make the painful contact.

Shot in muted tones at a carefully-measured pace and graced with three consummate performances, it eschews any hint of Hollywood sentimentality or melodrama.

There are no intense close-ups of grief to ram things home, no overstated score guiding your emotions. Instead, it's devastatingly real and resonating; the unspoken moment as the news is broken, the sealing of the coffin, a mother's soul wracking howl, a sister's eruption of frustrated rage and a final glimmer of hope that the healing can begin. See it and sob.


Russell Crowe as the brilliant but troubled John Nash in A Beautiful Mind
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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