At this point, Albert Einstein is more of a mythical figure than a historical one. Bring up his name in normal conversation and most people will remember him as genius.
The new National Geographic series Genius pulls back the veil and explores the life of a man who was both blessed and tortured by a brilliant mind.
This is NatGeo’s first scripted series, and the network better known for historical documentaries is treating it like an event. Given it features Oscar-winning Hollywood talent like Ron Howard and Geoffrey Rush, the hype is definitely warranted.
Based on Walter Isaacson’s book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Genius explores two overarching storylines set-up in the first episode: young and elder takes of Albert Einstein. When we first meet Einstein, we get a different perspective of the larger-than-life character we’ve come to know. Instead of solving math equations or retorting an important lecture, he is busy in carnal activities with his receptionist. This sets the tone for the rest of the episode, and for that matter, series. It’s all about learning about a new Albert Einstein who is a hybrid of factually accurate information and played-up machinations to give the series a enticing hook. And it definitely hooks you early on.
The series starts in 1922 when Einstein (Geoffrey Rush) is already a revered physicist. Trapped between the love for his wife Elsa (Emily Watson) and his receptionist Betty (Charity Wakefield), we find out he is much more practiced in quantum mechanics than in love. This is all set to the backdrop of a fast-changing Germany where Adolf Hitler is quickly moving up the political ranks along with a strong anti-Semitic spirit.
We then explore just how smart Einstein is during one of his lectures at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. While preaching on whether time is absolute or not, he drifts away in a memory that takes us to the second storyline the series follows.
In 1894, young Einstein (Johnny Flynn) is as brash as he is stubborn, finding his way into constant problems with his professors. Much like his older self, he again finds trouble with women, intrigued by both their beauty and minds. Instead of the incoming threat of Nazis, this time around, clashes with his father and a desire to explore physics beyond what his current education provides him delivers the tense moments.
Genius is anchored by the phenomenal performances by Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Flynn. Both bring nuanced details to different Einstein versions that really give the series its pull. Rush’s interpretation is more accomplished while Flynn’s is more frustrating, but both meet in the middle to deliver the same mannerism that give Einstein signature character traits.
Ron Howard directed the pilot episode and it is clearly stamped with his unique style. This is much more evident given Genius is a period-piece series with vivid and detailed 1920’s and 1890’s sets. It has the same gravitas he brought to A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man. Howard does a masterful job of building the world around Einstein beyond science with the intricacies of a rising political storm and love triangles.
The first scene in the series shows a prominent Jewish political figure being gunned down midday by radical Nazis. This gives the first episode (and series) a profound danger and ticking time clock as the elder Einstein storyline continues to advance deeper into the Nazi reign. By the time copies of the Mein Kampf begin to show up at his local store and pro-Nazi demonstrations are taking place in the streets, Geoffrey Rush’s Einstein realizes that it’s time to migrate to the United States. The tension is carried into the second episode where the series explores Einstein’s gradual romance with his first wife, Mileva Marić (Samantha Colley).
Genius is as entertaining as it is educational. The series does a great job of rounding out the unknown edges of the revered physicist. Anyone who knows the bare minimum about Albert Einstein will come away enthralled, intrigued and thoroughly satisfied. Genius is a must-watch TV series for anyone who values a well-made story.
Genius is now airing on National Geographic Tuesday nights at 9 PM. You can also stream the episodes online on NatGeo’s site.
Disclaimer: TechnoBuffalo received an early screening of the first two episodes of Genius for review.