We gave it a B+
Some actors love playing mentally ill characters for the flamboyant theatrical gestures such derangement allows—as well as for the ”acting up a storm” awards that often follow. (Geoffrey Rush + Shine = Oscar; Angelina Jolie + Girl, Interrupted = Oscar.) Yet, in A Beautiful Mind, Russell Crowe sometimes summons up one of the most powerful depictions of mental illness I have ever seen with barely an eyelid flicker separating manifestations of sickness from utterly sane displays of creative concentration.
Crowe plays John Forbes Nash Jr., a brilliant real-life mathematician and Nobel Prize winner, now in his 70s, who’s also a real-life schizophrenic. But when we first meet him as a Princeton graduate student, he’s just another eccentric genius, a loner obsessed with finding a truly original idea. (He does; he writes a revolutionary paper on game theory.)
Director Ron Howard, working from an inventive script by Akiva Goldsman that makes use in turn of Sylvia Nasar’s biography, does a crucial, and crucially understated, job of establishing the physical reality of Nash’s world—the campus, his classmates, his high-spirited roommate (Paul Bettany)—with such authority that we feel we can taste the chalk dust on the blackboard. (Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ work is as integral here as it is to the telling of The Man Who Wasn’t There.)
This tangibility is Beautiful Mind‘s beautiful achievement, the elegant solution to the problem of how to turn the biography of a man’s head into an absorbing movie. And especially coming from Howard, a director renowned (and sometimes critically reprimanded) for pumping big gusts of inspirational wind through pictures from Cocoon to Apollo 13, this is news. Inspired, perhaps, by the existence of an actual, living Nash as well as by Crowe’s superior bull-free talent, director and screenwriter have found a way to convey the sensation of schizophrenia from the inside out, not with a big raving and waving of hands but with a waiving of reality.
To say more about how is unwise, but I do want to say that Crowe ages as Nash ages. The academic geek who did so poorly with girls meets the beautiful student who will become his wife (Jennifer Connelly) at about the same time he meets the compelling government agent (Ed Harris) who recruits the professor to break codes. It’s only long after Nash’s schizophrenic break—after he has struggled with treatment that dulls his thoughts and deadens his marriage, and after he has struggled to live with his illness on his own terms—that this Mind gets foggy with uplift too.
Still, by then, the important movie work has been done: A Beautiful Mind has distinguished itself and enlightened its audience. No final speechifying and shots of Mrs. Nash’s tear-glistened eyes can take away the remembered image of Crowe as a young Nash, solving equations on a windowpane, aflame with an inspiration very close to madness. B+