A Beautiful Mind (2001)

D: Ron Howard
S: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly

Well made but unsurprising biopic of Nobel Prize-winning Mathematician John Nash, whose struggle with schizophrenia allows the film to draw generic elements from paranoia thrillers into what is essentially another triumph over physical/mental adversity tale. This kind of story has always found favour with the voters of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, so it was really no surprise that the film picked up numerous awards. Whether or not it was actually the best picture released in its year is another matter entirely.

The story begins in 1947 when young Nash (portrayed by Russell Crowe) attends grad school at Princeton with the hope of coming up with a truly original idea. Early on director Ron Howard (Ransom) begins to add little visual flourishes to suggest the character's capacity for unique perception: he sees patterns of light reflected by a tumbler, he visualises composite shapes drawn from objects around him; as the film progresses there are more of these. Nash struggles through his studies, unwilling to engage with academic dogma in favour of thought unconstrained by convention. Only his cheerfully anarchic roommate (played by Paul Bettany) seems to understand him; his lack of social graces makes him less than popular with his fellow students and his refusal to do assignments meets with sad skepticism from a professor played by Judd Hirsch.

After graduation, his natural brilliance eventually brings him into contact with the American military, who exploit his skills for code breaking. This draws him into a world of shadows and betrayals in which he becomes increasingly unsure of whom to trust. His controller is portrayed by Ed Harris, doing his usual turn as a suspicious government type in dark clothing. The only ray of light in Nash's increasingly perceptually twisted world seems to be the beautiful student who will eventually become his wife, Alicia (portrayed by Jennifer Connelly). Her willingness to embrace his eccentricity makes all the difference, especially when some startling revelations threaten to tear apart the fabric of his singular understanding of the universe.

As a genre piece, A Beautiful Mind is enlivened by its incorporation of elements of the thriller. The espionage sub-plot gives Howard an opportunity to bolster the film with set pieces including a car chase shoot out, and plenty of moments of suspense and drama which the 'disease of the month' format usually does not allow for. Later in the film these elements begin to pay off from a psychological standpoint and become part of the texture of the psychodrama which then ensues. Though scenes of Nash struggling with his sanity in a hospital overseen by a psychologist played by Christopher Plummer are more familiar in generic terms, the repeated flashes of paranoia and the continuing visual presence of indicators of perceptual originality are enough to ward off narrative tedium.

Such films always rely heavily on performance, and it is usually in this category that they win awards. From Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and Geoffrey Rush in Shine, particularly men playing characters afflicted by disease and/or handicaps of one kind of another have a history of stealing the show. Crowe (Gladiator, Proof of Life) is no exception in a brilliantly realised performance which demonstrates great subtlety and control in its depiction of gradual psychological collapse and recovery. His gestures, vocal rhythms, eye movements, and general physical deportment are excellent, and he provides the film with the necessary and expected strong anchor. It seems curiously unfortunate that politics of various kinds seem to have robbed him of his Oscar in the end.

Support from Connelly (Requiem for a Dream) is quite good, though the numerous awards she received seem to have been as much an acknowledgement of a corpus of work for which has been steadily gaining attention only in recent years. Her performance in itself seems more a series of head tilts and smiles which allow the camera to lock on to her beautiful eyes, later followed by much fearful trembling in which those eyes are still the focal point. She is effective though, and she and Crowe are a good in combination. This keeps the central romantic story on solid ground and ensures our emotions are engaged. Bettany (A Knight's Tale) and Harris (The Firm) are also effective as the good angel-bad angel combo who haunt Nash throughout his life.

A Beautiful Mind is a slick but conventional film which delivers the expected ingredients of this kind of film with a couple of minor twists which make it above average. Howard proves once again to be one of the most dependable artisans in Hollywood, turning out yet another well-crafted audience-pleasing genre piece. Whether this makes him the best director of the year or not is, again, another question.

Your response to A Beautiful Mind is likely to be at least in part determined by your expectation of what contemporary cinema is meant to be. In a year when Moulin Rouge pushed the limits of expressive imagery by returning to the roots of the medium and when The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings beat the odds and made a popular novel into a genuinely cinematic entertainment, it seems altogether too easy to hail A Beautiful Mind above all with the Oscar for Best Picture. This comes as no surprise though, as this has been the pattern over the years. Playing it safe and playing it well are values to which a great number of both filmmakers and audiences feel most comfortable with, and as such A Beautiful Mind is probably likely to sustain its middle-of-the-road following as the years go by while Moulin Rouge will disappear into the realms of academic postulation and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings will hold its ground as a holiday movie.

Good picture? Yes, all things being equal. Worth seeing? Sure. Best Picture? Your call.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.