The Studied Ms. Paltrow Lets Loose; Tom Wilkinson Proves Oscar-Worthy

I know September is a bit early for throwing one’s hat in the air with end-of-the-year abandon, but two English-language films I have just seen impel me to rapturous reviews of their riveting narratives. These are, in no particular order, Julian Fellowes’ Separate Lies (from his screenplay, based on the novel A Way Through the Wood by Nigel Balchin) and John Madden’s Proof (from a screenplay by David Auburn and Rebecca Miller, based on Mr. Auburn’s play). The reason I mention these two works in tandem is that each is sparked by Oscar-worthy performances: Tom Wilkinson’s James in Separate Lies and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Catherine in Proof.

Separate Lies begins with the mystery of a traffic fatality, the solution to which gradually unravels the seemingly conventional upper-class British marriage of James and Anne Manning (Mr. Wilkinson and Emily Watson). James is a much respected and admired international lawyer who lives with his wife in a comfortable country home (in which they give big parties) as well as a convenient apartment in London. The only signs of tension in the marriage arise from James’ tendency to be a perfectionist, and Anne’s to be anything but. On the night of one of their parties, the husband of the Mannings’ cleaning lady is found near death just down the road, the victim of a hit-and-run while he was riding his bike.

At first the police regard it as a random accident. James, however, becomes suspicious of his neighbor, Bill Bule (Rupert Everett), a particularly cheeky young aristocrat who has just returned from America and who was driving to the Mannings’ party that night, arriving just about the time of the accident. When James reveals his suspicions to Anne, she dismisses his speculations, but when he confronts Bule at a hastily arranged lunch the next day, he is startled to learn that Anne was in the car with him and actually driving in a drunken state. Dumbfounded, James asks Anne about Bule’s matter-of-fact allegations, and Anne delivers a knockout blow by blithely confessing to having an affair with Bule. She does so with a witty play on the F-word that James uses adjectivally to abuse Bule; Anne turns it around to its verb form to describe what she and Bule do together. When James asks her why she has betrayed him in this manner, Anne simply shrugs and says that Bule is less a perfectionist than James and doesn’t expect so much from her.

This maddening insouciance on her part would normally be expected to incite a husband to rage and revenge, but James is made of sterner and nobler stuff than this. He is determined to protect his wife no matter what, and he thus becomes enmeshed, along with Anne and Bule, in a web of lies. There are many more twists and turns to this triangulated tale of criminal deceit, sustained only by a lingering memory of a love that once was—or was it ever?

Ms. Watson’s Anne isn’t the most culpable one in the criminal deception; indeed, from the beginning she’s fully prepared to take whatever punishment she deserves, but the two men in her life—and even the victim’s widow—won’t let her. Ironies abound in this anti-morality fable, and through it all, Mr. Wilkinson’s James shines with a complex humanity one seldom encounters on the screen (and, just in case you’ve forgotten, Mr. Wilkinson was also terrific in Peter Cattaneo’s The Full Monty).

Proof might have been less mesmerizing for me if I had seen Mr. Auburn’s play on the stage with any of its three estimable Catherines: Mary-Louise Parker, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Anne Heche. (Actually, Ms. Paltrow made a fourth Catherine in Mr. Madden’s London stage production.) As it is, I was in a very desirable state of suspense all through this voyage to the shadowy borderland between mathematical genius and clinical insanity in the lives of a father and daughter. In his last days, one-time math genius Robert (Anthony Hopkins), mentally hobbled for most of his later life by dementia, enlists Catherine (Ms. Paltrow), his burgeoning 27-year-old mathematician daughter, for one last stab at the proof for a revolutionary math theorem.

We don’t know until nearly the end if Robert has recovered enough lucidity to achieve his goal. The movie, like the play, is focused mostly on Catherine and her hardheaded view of her situation. Indeed, Ms. Paltrow dominates the proceedings with her skeptical reaction to the tributes heaped on Robert at his well-attended funeral. In a scene not from the play, Catherine makes an unscheduled appearance on the rostrum to ask the crowded auditorium where they all were during her father’s long illness, when she was left alone in his large faculty house on campus to care for him. She concludes her bitter comments with the harsh assertion that she’s glad he’s dead.

She is more receptive to a young math scholar named Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), who asks permission to go through her father’s notebooks in search of mathematical material that he might have conceived in moments of clarity. She takes such a liking to him that she finally goes to bed with him. At this point, Catherine’s practical-minded sister from New York arrives to take charge: She has already negotiated with the university to sell their father’s house right out from under her. Ultra-sane Claire (Hope Davis) immediately becomes the film’s heavy for even hinting that Catherine might need psychiatric attention and supervision in New York after exhibiting some of her father’s mental tendencies, including a passionate love of mathematics. (Why one sister should be presumed to be at hereditary risk from their father’s insanity but not the other is never made clear.)

Ms. Davis, a marvelous actress in her own right, is unable to generate any sympathy for her character’s well-meaning but obtrusive presence. It might be argued that Mr. Madden, Mr. Auburn and Ms. Miller have so romanticized the co-existence of madness and genius that mere sanity is made to seem hopelessly banal and unimaginative. I’m not sure that I believe that madness from which all toxicity has been removed truly exists. And yet Ms. Paltrow is so electrifying in her somber manner that she makes me root for at least a touch of madness in the psyche to spur it beyond the limits of cold reason.

When Catherine provides the key to a drawer in her father’s desk to Hal, with a notebook inside containing the proof of a new theorem, and then claims to have devised it herself, Hal at first seems reluctant to believe her. She isn’t much surprised that her sister immediately disbelieves her, but Hal’s doubt completely demoralizes her to the point that she stops resisting her sister’s efforts to “take charge” of her in New York. Of course, she has a change of heart in the airport lobby and returns to the campus to give Hal another chance. He, for his part, has already begun to believe her version of events.

This thumbnail synopsis may not sound like much, but the delights are in the details, and in the way the convoluted story unfolds by bits and pieces. Many reviewers seem tired of Mr. Hopkins, particularly in American roles. This may explain why the release of Proof has been delayed for over a year. I don’t get it—I can’t think of anyone who could give the role of Robert more gravitas than Mr. Hopkins does, particularly in a climactic scene when all his hopeful delusions of his mind’s restoration are smashed by his own demand that Catherine read his “proof” out loud. There is a degree of subtlety and heartbreak in that pivotal moment of self-recognition that reverberates till the final fade-out.

I must confess that I have gotten a little tired of Ms. Paltrow in recent years—or rather, with the idea and image of Ms. Paltrow in terms of what I came to regard as her overly studied style. Her radical transformation in Proof was therefore doubly revelatory. In essence, she has done nothing short of write a new chapter in the poetics of disenchantment. And for this, I must give thanks to Mr. Madden, Mr. Auburn and Ms. Miller, for having given Ms. Paltrow a golden opportunity to display a new facet of her talent.


Joseph Cedar’s Campfire (Medurat Hashevet), from his own screenplay, takes an adversarial stance against the settler movement, now in considerable disarray. Israeli films in general constitute dissenting voices against the established order by championing individual aspirations. Still, Mr. Cedar’s own background makes him an unusual candidate for the role of dissenter.

Born in New York in 1968, he emigrated to Israel with his Orthodox family at the age of 6, and though his parents didn’t end up moving to a settlement, many of their good friends did relocate their homes to the hills of Judea and Samaria. As Mr. Cedar recalls this period, “As a child I remember being disappointed that my parents weren’t adventurous enough to take part in this ‘historical movement.’ Today I think it is safe to say that the Settlement Movement did indeed leave its footprints on the history of our region …. There is something about our reality now that is undeniably influenced by the Settler Movement. I resent that, and the resentment is there in the movie.”

Mr. Cedar has a yeshiva background, studying philosophy and theater history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, after which he served as a paratrooper in the Israeli Defense Forces. He then enrolled in the N.Y.U. film school, from which he graduated in 1999. His first feature film, Time of Favor (Ha-Hesder) won six Israeli Academy Awards, including Best Picture in 2000, and was also the No. 1 box-office hit in Israel that year. Campfire is Mr. Cedar’s second feature film. He currently lives in Tel Aviv with wife, Vered Kellner, a journalist, and their daughter.

Campfire is set in 1981, at the peak of the settlement frenzy. Rachel Gerlik (Michaela Eshet), a 42-year-old widowed mother of two attractive teenage daughters, seeks to join the founding group of a new religious settlement in the West Bank. The leader of the acceptance committee advises her that she won’t be accepted unless she remarries and demonstrates that she and her daughters meet the group’s religious and ideological standards.

To satisfy the first condition, the reluctant Rachel allows a friend to arrange a meeting with Yossi (Moshe Ivgy), an unmarried bus driver. Rachel finds Yossi almost endearingly shy, introverted and respectful, and she identifies with his feelings of loneliness. But she still keeps looking for a possible husband, and is next introduced to a soulful, breezily extroverted singer, Moshe Weinstock (Yehoram Gaon). Though she’s amused by his good-natured boisterousness, Moshe is too full of himself for the long haul of marriage.

Meanwhile, of Rachel’s two increasingly mature and bothersome daughters, the rebellious elder Esti (Maya Maron) is already sleeping around, and the younger Tami (Hani Furstenberg) allows herself to be sexually molested by a band of disreputable boys gathered around a community campfire (hence the title of the film). Soon, scrawled references to Tami’s rumored misbehavior spring up on walls around the neighborhood. The leader of the founding committee warns Rachel that her daughter’s scandalous reputation will nullify her application to the West Bank settlement. Rachel refuses to apologize for her daughter and storms out of the room.

For her part, Tami refuses to talk about her experience, thereby preserving enough of her dignity and self-respect to regain the affections of her boyfriend, temporarily estranged because of the “scandal.” Rachel finally decides to marry Yossi after he has befriended and reassured her children on his own.

When the founding group relents and offers Rachel and her children a place in the settlement, Rachel calls a conference of her new “family” with Yossi and asks for a vote on joining the group. Tami, Esti and Yossi all vote no. She then tells the leader of the group that she is refusing their offer—and is assailed for her ingratitude.

Campfire sparked an uproar in Israel upon its release. The film was reportedly a smash hit among secular Israelis, while religious Jews boycotted this alleged affront to their sensibilities and felt betrayed by Mr. Cedar, supposedly one of their own, a former paratrooper who once was stationed in the West Bank to protect the very settlements he rejects in Campfire.

Mr. Cedar reacts with calm lucidity to all the furor he’s aroused: “I decided to set my film in this context because I wanted to examine the social dynamics behind the ideology and politics. In the beginning of my film Rachel expresses her desire to join the settlement, and we know that there is nothing political about this desire, all she wants is to belong to a community. By the end of the story, when Rachel turns her back on the settlement, here too there is nothing political, only an act of social independence and personal integrity. When I think of all the political and ideological ideas that surround me and affect my life on a daily basis, I sometimes ask myself how much of it is ultimately a result of social dynamics, tribal affiliations, and personal loyalties. My feeling is, and this is the underlying theme of the films I’ve made, that ideology is merely a mask covering basic human motivations.”

The Studied Ms. Paltrow Lets Loose; Tom Wilkinson Proves Oscar-Worthy