It’s not an easy thing to portray a genius on film. The inner workings of the mind are subtle and often not particularly well-understood. FX’s audacious series Legion put us inside the mind of someone ostensibly suffering from schizophrenia, but it was one of the most fascinating visual journeys through exploring a subconscious that I’ve ever seen. NatGeo’s new scripted anthology, Genius, takes a more rote approach to a biography of the mind, with its exploration into the life of Albert Einstein (played by Geoffrey Rush, and Johnny Flynn as his younger self). The project sees NatGeo looking to not only establish itself as a producer of original scripted content, but to do so with fanfare — Ron Howard (who directed the premiere) and Brian Grazer are behind the series.
Genius’ opening 10-episode season is based on the 2007 book Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson, and feels meticulously researched. In its first hour, Genius splits its time between the elder Einstein (Rush) facing off against the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Germany, and his early years (Flynn) as a fairly impudent student. The miniseries kicks off with Rush’s Einstein in a passionate and enthusiastic display of affection with a woman who is not his wife — a boorish tease, but one calculated to catch a casual viewer’s attention. The premiere then continues on in this stilted, uninspired way when it comes to the script, though Howard’s ever-moving lens captures scenes in saturated hues, and even adds some animated inflections to show how Einstein’s mind might have worked.
That convention is dropped in the second episode, where we no longer see theoretical spheres floating through space, but the show also gets much better by focusing almost exclusively on Young Einstein. Though he is cocky and only interested in studying physics (to the detriment of many of his other studies, and to the consternation of his professors), his natural aptitude for a theoretical thought process is finally shown, not just explained. Some dialogue clunkers of the first episode (like winking nods to “time cannot occur at two different speeds”) are replaced by a genuinely engaging rapport between Einstein and another brilliant scientist, one who would become his first wife — Mileva Maric (Samantha Colley). The series even gives enough time to her story to make one wish that it might all have been devoted to her, and it also doesn’t let Einstein off the hook over the idea that he might have just ruined her life (in the name of love, of course).
Having only seen these two hours, it’s hard to know how the series will proceed, though it is much more promising after the second installment. The series is at its best, rather ironically, when it’s not dealing with time (or jumping through it) and focuses on smaller, human moments rather than broad strokes from history. And while it is an improvement, accuracy-wise, that the cast don’t all speak in English accents (what use to be the go-to for “somewhere in Europe”), the transition to German for Rush and Flynn isn’t a fully successful one.
Still, NatGeo’s desire, it seems, is to make these kinds of biographies of great men and women of genius not only accessible but engaging to a wide audience. Though the execution falters some, the ambition cannot be understated. Most admirably, Genius is an intriguing exploration of the often very flawed and human side of someone with a superhuman mind. It’s not exactly “geniuses, they’re just like us!” but there is a restraint from hero worship. Instead of focusing on muscles and blurry action shots where physics have absolutely no place, there are long conversations about Faraday, Maxwell, and electromagnetic fields. That’s encouraging. And, in the case of Genius, also a little fun.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
Genius premieres Tuesday, April 25th on NatGeo.