Did we like it?
A brilliant, moving drama that sewed together the disparate human traits of love, discovery and guilt, and was marvellously acted by David Tennant, Andy Serkis, Jim Broadbent and others.
What was good about it?
• David Tennant gave a performance of depth and pathos as the eternally frustrated Arthur Eddington. In love with his best friend William, an affection that would never either be reciprocated or even expressed in 1914, Eddington threw himself into his work. And did so with even more vigour after William was killed at Ypres.
• This theme was also apparent in Einstein’s half of the story, where Andy Serkis played Einstein as a child who constantly wanted to show off his new talents to his parents. But in Einstein’s case, it was more often playing up to a crowd of uncritical, agog children. After his friend Max’s son is killed during the war, Einstein comes up for a breath of humanity and conveys his sorrow, but at the same time explains how science is an ideal distraction from “the horrors”.
• But when he is refused admission to Berlin University, after vilifying his colleagues for the formulation of the toxic gas that slaughtered 15,000 Allied troops at Ypres, he rushes to the apartment of his lover Elsa to declare his love, as if stripped of the drug of science he is capable of human relationships once again. And this was also a factor in his estrangement from his wife.
• Denied the love of a conventional relationship, Eddington throws his theories and ideas at his devoted sister Winnie (Rebecca Hall), barely mindful of her comprehension as she just smiles at him. The relationship changes when William dies and he weeps in her arms, confessing his love, of which she is all too aware, as though she is the humanity he has exorcised from his person in his pursuit of science.
• The dialogue was also quite peculiar. Perhaps acknowledging that complex physics theories contemplating creation, time and the cosmos were perhaps incongruous with a drama, the scientific verbiage was barked out by both Einstein and Eddington not to try and educate the audience but to project their characters through the screen (although we did find Eddington’s table cloth, bread loaf, apple explanation of time and space most enlightening).
• For example, Einstein would bark his theories at the “fat industrialist” who wished to sponsor his research on gravity at Berlin University, and so we learned of his intolerance of those who sought capital or warmongers. Eddington, meanwhile, on an idyllic country bike ride with William, would substitute all the things he longed to say to him with his scientific ideas. It was both touching and heartbreaking, especially when William said he “would be home for Christmas”, which in the conventions of World War One TV dramas means, “I’ll be buried where I fall.”
• But even dramatic clichés were handled with such skill as to make you almost oblivious to them. Eddington rushed to the station, having resolved to declare his love to William, but is delayed by the proud Sir Oliver (Broadbent) seeing off his son to war. As the train pulls out you think that’s the end of it, but the best moment comes as Eddington frantically cycles after the train pleading in his eyes for William to turn in his seat and spot him.
• And also the clash between the publicly grieving Sir Oliver and the repressed sorrow of Eddington over the catastrophe at Ypres. Sir Oliver used his son’s death to force through his edict that correspondence between English and German scientists should be forbidden on a basis of petty vengeance, shouting down the stubborn Eddington who couldn’t counter his argument using his own anguish in the same way because of its illicit nature.
• We become so devoured in the theatre of it all that even the exchange of letters between Einstein and Eddington was thrilling.
What was bad about it?
• The exemplary moral piety of the two protagonists during the war, as this converged their characters, which up until that point, had embarked on deliriously solo journeys. Rather than propelling the narrative, it seemed to get bogged down in showing us what altruistic people they were as Eddington defended Germans resident in Britain from surly mobs while Einstein smashed tea cups to vent his fury over the use of chemical weapons. Each example was extraneous simply because they had already been so adroitly sketched following their paths as non-identical twins of humanity amid the contagious barbarism of warfare.
• One part of Einstein’s theory of relativity decrees that time moves at different speeds for different people – this was evident in Einstein’s own sons as they hardly seemed to age at all over the six years chronicle.