Proof, the 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. was a smart, well-constructed play, acted to perfection by an ensemble cast under the stage direction of Daniel Sullivan. A film adaptation directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) and with an all star cast, understandably leads to expectations for a satisfying film drama. Something went terribly wrong here and one of the fine theatrical experiences of recent years turns into celluloid dross.
At the heart of the story is Catherine, a twenty-something daughter who dropped out of college to take care of her college professor father who apparently suffered from dementia. In the film, Gwyneth Paltrow (The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Royal Tenenbaums) plays the role created on Broadway by Mary Louise Parker, who was succeeded by Jennifer Jason Leigh. The latter, often distracting with physical mannerisms and a little-girlish voice, overcame these obstacles to deliver a performance that caught the fears and insecurities, as well as the piercing intelligence of the character. Paltrow doesn’t get beneath the surface of the character, not for a minute conveying a sense either of the brilliant mathematical mind that daughter has inherited from father, nor her precarious emotional state and her profound vulnerability.
The father, Robert, is equally miscast, with Anthony Hopkins never quite shaking his English accent or the same pace and phrasing he seems to be using these days for everything from Titus to Ptolemy. Catherine’s sister, Claire (Hope Davis), arrives from New York to sell the family home after Robert dies; she wants Catherine to move to New York where, presumably, Catherine’s possibly inherited mental instability could be monitored. As in the play, the two sisters are diametrically opposed characters, but at least on stage there was some sense that they shared a history. Here, all three lead characters, members of the same family, seem barely to have met one another before.
Hal, a student of Robert’s and the love interest for Catherine, is played by Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, The Good Girl) who is loaded with charm and good looks, but suggests none of the vulnerability that made the stage character both more interesting and more sympathetic. In short, a great deal of talent has been put to the service of a classic ensemble theatre piece and they’ve turned it into a flat, uninvolving exercise that barely conveys the intriguing central themes of the source material: family love and tensions, romantic love and trust and the difficulties thereof. Even the mystery which provides the central narrative drive of the play, is frittered away on the big screen. The result is a flaccid narrative, helped in no way by the annoying generic tinkling of Stephen Warbeck’s soundtrack.