Albert Einstein – the genius at the centre of Genius, National Geographic’s new 10-part biographical TV series – was not a saint. The show makes sure the viewer knows it from the very first moment Einstein appears on screen with pants down and, ahem, smudging the chalk on a blackboard with his young lover.
That’s not to say that Genius makes its subject unlikeable. As the series jumps between his accomplished celebrity during the rise of Nazism and his headstrong youth, Einstein becomes a typical relatable underdog we’re all rooting for.
The older Einstein is expertly embodied by Geoffrey Rush, who is no stranger to playing eccentric but brilliant characters. But while Rush has the famous face – albeit transformed with a fake nose – British actor Johnny Flynn is the one who captures the audience, at least for the first four episodes, playing the young Einstein stumbling about the ivory towers of academia.
His curiosity is endless, though not everyone finds it endearing. His endless questioning, undeterred ambition, and sceptic approach to long-accepted science makes him a difficult student and lands him poor references when he tries to get a job in a university. Instead, he works long days as a patent clerk, writing scientific papers in his spare time.
With him in these early days is his first wife, Mileva Maric (Samantha Colley), a scientist in her own right. We watch her co-write the famous papers published under Einstein’s name, and (while historians may argue over the extent of her contribution) we feel the frustration of her wasted potential. And Genius does not hold back on the tragedy of Maric’s story and Einstein’s part in it.
The show sets out one of its themes perhaps a little heavy-handedly in the first episode, in a question thrown at Einstein by his second wife, Elsa (Emily Watson): “For a man who is an expert on the universe, you don’t know the first thing about people, do you?”
The series, based on Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography Einstein: His Life and Universe, is visually stunning and starkly emotive, but perhaps most fascinating is its vibrant historical setting. Escalating anti-semitism, both world wars and the fear of Communism are seamlessly woven into the background.
The weight of all that history, though fascinating, does tend to take away from the magnitude of Einstein’s discoveries. While a TV drama might not be able to offer a comprehensive explanation of the photoelectric effect, for instance, all too often Genius simply tells viewers that Einstein’s theories are a big deal, rather than offering an opportunity to fully understand why.
Nevertheless, seeing Einstein’s constant questioning of the universe reminds us of its wonder. Don’t be surprised if Genius inspires a new generation of science students.
Genius airs Monday nights on National Geographic.
Originally published by Cosmos as The life and loves of Albert Einstein
Anthea Batsakis is a freelance journalist in Melbourne, Australia.
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