TV Review: Einstein and Eddington

“We need English science to prove to everyone just how good we are”

A 2008 BBC film, Einstein and Eddington offers limited pleasure to the Lucy Cohu lover as she plays Einstein’s increasingly estranged wife Mileva and is consequently predominantly left to look moody in the background looking after some mopey moppets. But elsewhere it was a surprisingly engaging piece of film-making, bringing a very human aspect to the work of science, the sacrifices necessary, and also showing that nothing, not even ground-breaking scientific discoveries, happen in moral or ethical vaccums.

The focus is pulling together of Einstein’s theory of general relativity and how against the backdrop of the First World War, a correspondence grew between him and British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington which enabled the Brit to use his greater freedom to gather the necessary proof for the theory and catapult the German-born into the history books. But the pursuit of life-enhancing knowledge has its consequences and this Peter Moffat-written drama doesn’t shy away from showing the emotional damage suffered by all concerned.

Andy Serkis’ tousle-haired Einstein has to deal with his increasing unease at being co-opted into the German scientific establishment at a moment when the horrors of chemical warfare are being trialled for use on the battlefield, his refusal to fall into step with the Kaiser proving difficult. And his personal life was complicated too by falling in love with his first cousin, played with customary wry warmth by Jodhi May, whilst still married to Lucy Cohu’s Mileva, the mother to his two sons. The ethics of this relationship are never really examined which I thought was a shame, the hints that Mileva had been something of a sounding board for his theorising an intriguing hint of what could have been a more interesting character for Cohu, but sadly not to be.

And in Cambridge, David Tennant takes on Eddington, a Quaker and so exempt from having to serve in the armed forces and a man driven by several torments. The scientific discoveries he is helping to prove sit at odds with his religious beliefs, a conflict personified in the quiet observations of Rebecca Hall as his sister Winnie, an excellent performance in a role that might otherwise have been marginalised. And there’s also hints of him battling homosexual feelings, leading to the film’s most heart-breaking moment of unspoken and undeclared love, as a train sets off for the battlefield.

The climactic struggle to ensure scientific progress even as the respective nations of the two men fought a terrible war is sensitively portrayed, especially against the tragic losses suffered by colleagues on both sides but the mood never gets too despondently heavy, as characterised by Richard McCabe’s cheery assisting professor who treks to Africa with Eddington to get the all-important proof that starlight is bent by the sun (and that’s as scientific as I get!). Cohu’s work may be limited here but it suits her strengths, speaking volumes with those deep eyes and tugging the heartstrings at the injustices of the world. And as part of an intelligent and balanced piece of television, it is definitely something worth tracking down.

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