Gwyneth Paltrow reteams with her Shakespeare In Love director John Madden in Proof, a drama that works best in its wistful, contemplative shadings.
Actually, Paltrow played the part of Catherine on the London stage for Madden, and on screen she delivers a performance that is nuanced and quite riveting throughout.
Catherine is the 27-year-old daughter of influential mathematician Robert (Anthony Hopkins) who began to lose his grip on reality long before his death. Madden tricks the viewer in an early moment with a conversation between father and daughter, as it becomes clear that Catherine is dealing with her own fragile sanity. The emotional state of its characters and the subject matter calls to mind deeply affecting pictures like A Beautiful Mind and Good Will Hunting.
David Auburn has adapted his own play with the assistance of Rebecca Miller (The Ballad of Jack and Rose) that Paltrow senses vividly in a character in need of a pick-me-up who realizes her mathematical potential. The transfer from stage to screen adds some picturesque luster, though holds mostly to the original production of taking place on the spacious family porch.
This four-character piece which does have a static feel at times includes Jake Gyllenhaal as Hal, a former student of Robert's, now a math professor at the University of Chicago, and Hope Davis as Catherine's controlling, capricious sister Claire, just in from New York. She wants to sell the rundown home out from under Catherine.
The script cuts back on bulkier dramatic leanings with not too much mathematical diatribes as Hal gets closer to Catherine and thus to her father's somewhat unintelligible etchings. There is a hidden notebook with a proof that could lead to a major breakthrough. Madden's unsentimental interpretation doesn't have the grace of the theatrical twists which give meaning to the theorem and the deft interplay between daughter and her delusional father.
As Hal, the affable Gyllenhaal is up to the task relating the vulnerability of someone probably not headed to the top of his profession even if his excitable theoretician playing in a band doesn't make for the ideal preppie. The talented Davis (Hearts in Atlantis) who brings comprehension into the family academia isn't really a heartless, intrusive sister. Hopkins expresses some of the same emotions felt in his turn as a disgraced academic in The Human Stain, though Robert's character gains true momentum in a crescendo of dementia.
A tingling cacophony reflecting troubled creative minds puts the score into a haunting, sonic tonality in symphony with Catherine. In reprising her stage role, Paltrow is commanding in realizing the pain of being her father's daughter and excelling in something that may have accelerated his debilitating state.