Proof

| September 16, 2005

Proof, the latest play adapted by Hollywood, has achieved something quite remarkable. It has surpassed the Broadway incarnation, no small feat, considering it won both the Pulitzer and Tony there. And yet, David Auburn (assisted by Rebecca Miller) has improved upon his original script: his screenplay, assisted by able director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) is the highest recommendation for making theater theatrical.
Without Chicago’s special-effects and chicanery, and beyond distilling Closer for mass (yet deserved) consumption, Proof simply relies on x and y. Let x equal love and let y equal trust: the key elements of a beautiful father-daughter, sister-sister, and lover-lover story; the lifeblood needed from an author and director.
And so, with love and trust, Proof takes everything at face value, making no assertions and letting everything exist on a purely hypothetical realm. When we first see Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) speaking with her father, Robert (Anthony Hopkins), it’s a poignant moment. She’s afraid she’s going insane; he tells her she’s not: crazy people don’t know they’re crazy. But, she replies, there’s a flaw: he–a once-brilliant mathematician–is crazy. That’s true, says her father, pausing for a moment, and there’s a perfect sadness captured in the still and silent wrinkles of Hopkins’ face. He strikes an impassive poise, and with the utmost seriousness says: then again, I’m dead. Suddenly we realize (with a moment of sadness–perhaps–crossing our faces) she is talking to herself. We then realize, in the next scene’s interactions with Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), just how paranoid and crazy she seems. A few scenes later, when we see how she’s cared for her father–by herself, for the last five years–we see how little we really know.
Our assumptions and the constant gravitational shift of truth leave us in a crazy world, and both the writer and director step back to leave us there, alone with the actors. Each is perfectly cast: Gyllenhaal’s youthful exuberance is a perfect counterpoint for Hopkins’ insane triumphs, Hope Davis (who plays Catherine’s older sister) and her calculating efficiency are a cold compliment for Paltrow’s lackadaisical attitude. Auburn has trimmed the expositional dialogue so they can have at each other more directly, and Madden has focused their anger, residing in perpetual close-up, trusting that Paltrow is more than capable of commanding silence and space with her beautiful haunting eyes. She is.
While it’s clear Hal is the “love interest,” and Claire is the “bad guy,” they’re wonderful shades of grey; even their ulterior motives are layered like onions. Not only is there no indication of who is right, we don’t even know there is a right. Even Claire, who at first seems unilaterally grating with her cloying tones, has another side: there is jealously and there is fear, fear of her sister’s “tendency towards mental instability.” When Catherine claims to have written a proof found alongside her father’s worthless notebooks, Madden plays a shell game with the audiences, shuffling between the past and present, convincing us that she has and then that she hasn’t until the truth has become a liquid concept and the audience is immersed in the film treatment of Catherine’s own madness.
That fragile ledge between two possibilities is all the tension Proof needs to keep the audience rapt: the only disappointment comes in being given a singular Q.E.D. ending.

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