BBC2 - 22nd November 2008 - 9.10pm

My word, this had a lot to pack in, didn't it. Not only was Philip Martin's film chock full of period cossies and gorgeous looking landscapes but it was also struggling, over 90 minutes, to fit in a whole wealth of subject matter. It explores the personal and professional lives of Albert Einstein, before becoming science icon of the 20th Century, and Arthur Eddington, a British astronomer now relegated to a mere footnote in the whole development of the general theory of relativity. Add in World War 1 with its anti-German and anti-Jew prejudices and its terrible legacy upon whole generations both in Germany and Britain, the pacifism of both Eddington and Einstein and then Eddington's expedition to prove or disprove Einstein's theory...and you've got a lot to take in. And without Eddington going to Africa in 1919, Einstein's idea that light is bent by curved space would have been left to gather dust for several more years.

Both of them share a number of deeply emotional scenes that whilst seemingly discuss one theme also have the ability to reverberate with our own knowledge of the War and its aftermath.
Peter Moffat's script crams all this in plus Eddington's repressed homosexuality and Einstein's infidelity. It's a flawed but thoroughly enjoyable film with two incredible central performances from David Tennant as Eddington and Andy Serkis as Einstein. Serkis is somewhat over ripe in his delivery of the lines, his Mittel European accent wandering off course on a few occasions but it is still a charming characterisation that manages to capture Einstein's rage against his German benefactors, his self-destructive work ethic as well as a crumpled Chaplinesque attractiveness. Tennant is really wonderful. His Eddington is full of stoic British pride but wrestles internally with his faith (he was a Quaker and therefore a conscientious objector) and his homosexuality. Both of them share a number of deeply emotional scenes that whilst seemingly discuss one theme also have the ability to reverberate with our own knowledge of the War and its aftermath.

When Einstein is recruited by the German military in Berlin he is disgusted to discover that his scientist peers have merely been spending their time developing chlorine gas. As Serkis gazes over the poisoned bodies of the pigeons used in the test, questioning what it is all for, we are reminded not only of the appalling loss of life at Ypres but also, ominously, of the gas chambers to come and ultimately the thousands that would die at Hiroshima. Likewise, there is an extremely moving sequence where Eddington misses saying farewell to his friend William Marston on the troop train and madly cycles along side the train to get a final glimpse of him but doesn't go fast enough to achieve it. This sets off all sorts of resonances with the discussions about time slowing down the faster you go and is picked up later in an emotional scene where Eddington confesses his feelings for William to his sister Winnie, clutching the pocket watch given to him by Marston. Later, the watch also records the cease of hostilities on the front. Similarly, explanations of Einstein's theories of relativity are placed within the human drama. We get that lovely scene with Einstein and his sons sailing the boat whilst neglecting his wife and the rather stock in trade use of the tablecloth, lump of bread and whirling apple to illustrate the idea that space is curved.
Sumpter gives us a man who carefully plays Einstein and then discards him once he proves to be of no use to the German war machine.
But it is the human stories that are told in parallel that are the most interesting. The First World War and all its ugliness is present and correct. Eddington defends a German family as their business is attacked by British thugs and then by taking them in is both spat on and presented with the white feather of cowardice by a baying mob. Tennant is again superb in these scenes, boiling with indignation under the surface and yet outwardly stoic in the face of such prejudice. Einstein is seen as stubborn too and refuses to follow the call to sign up to a letter of his fellow scientists who are supporting the German war machine and is gradually cut off from the university in Berlin. Serkis too shows what immense courage Einstein had in the face of fascism and there is some brilliant interplay between Serkis and an exceptional Donald Sumpter, playing Max Planck. Sumpter gives us a man who carefully plays Einstein and then discards him once he proves to be of no use to the German war machine. Apparently, both Einstein and Eddington faced imprisonment for their anti-war stance but the film doesn't even mention this.

Jim Broadbent is also excellent as Eddington's bullish opponent, Sir Oliver Lodge, at the Cambridge Observatory. There is a scene where Lodge attacks Eddington's sympathy for Einstein's theories after losing a son in the gas attack at Ypres, accusing him of not really understanding what it is to lose a loved one and for a moment you honestly wish that Eddington would respond and acknowledge that he'd already lost his love, William Marston, to the attack. It's an electric scene between the two actors. And of course, the whole notion of Einstein threatening to debunk Newtonian principles (British science) with his theories of relativity (German science) are again a further parallel in an exploration of the ethics of war.

It's compelling, emotional and revealing and looks ravishing, with Hungarian locations standing in for Berlin, as well as some beautiful, lush English landscapes, high production values and attention to detail. It's overtly popularist in the way it handles the science bits but then it's more about the faith of the two scientists and their personal struggles rather than a detailed analysis of their methods. Thankfully, you've also got Tennant and Serkis giving superb performances too. The script does try and pack in too much, with a tendency to having a rather staccato approach to connecting scenes and under-development of some of the peripheral characters (Anton Lesser, a stunningly brilliant character actor, here playing Fritz Haber, barely gets a handful of scenes). There is also slightly too much emphasis on the use of the incidental music too. But, overall it is superb, unmissable television.

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  1. I'm going to have to watch this now. Thanks for the review, Frank - excellent as always.


  2. Indeed, get it watched. A fantastic piece of telly and Tennant and Serkis are very good. I've been very impressed by Serkis recently - with this and his turn in Little Dorrit.

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