Long before “Einstein” became an adjective to denote genius, it was simply the name of a scientist whose vision upended our view of the universe and matter itself.
But a shroud of mystery continues to surround the man, especially regarding his volatile, passionate and complex personal relationships.
Starting today, Genius, National Geographic Channel’s first scripted series, pulls back the curtain to reveal how Albert the man became Einstein the icon.
It is a global television event, a retelling of his tumultuous life in 10 episodes that will be broadcast in 171 countries and 45 languages.
“We all know of his genius, his gifts,” says Ron Howard, the director of the first episode and executive producer of the series.
“But Alfred Einstein’s private life is far more complicated and dramatic than, certainly, I ever realised. And there’s a very human story to be told here.”
Howard’s knack for portraying genius on screen is well-established. He won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Director for A Beautiful Mind, which depicted the tortured reality of mathematical prodigy John Forbes Nash Jr, as portrayed by Russell Crowe.
In telling the story of Einstein, Howard has recruited a dream team of talent. As the older Einstein, the ever-masterful Geoffrey Rush yet again displays his flair for playing uncommon men, adding to a resume that includes: Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, a speech coach to George VI in The King’s Speech (2010), and a brilliant, troubled pianist in Shine (1996), for which he won an Oscar.
Joining Rush as a younger Albert in the years before he rose to fame is Johnny Flynn (Clouds of Sils Maria, Lovesick), and Emily Watson (The Theory of Everything) as his second wife Elsa. The series also stars Samantha Colley (The Crucible), T R Knight (Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Wife), Seth Gabel (Salem) and Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men).
In a retelling shaped by Walter Isaacson’s book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, we meet him as a imaginative, rebellious thinker who rose from humble origins. While Einstein, the theoretical physicist, unlocked the cosmos with his theory of relativity, and was a bit of a playful joker with crazy hair, he could also unleash callous emotions on those closest to him, including his children, two wives and the women with whom he had extra-marital affairs.
“Ron was very keen to take the elements of Einstein’s life, that it not fall into the trap of being a biopic,” says 65-year-old Rush. “The story of Einstein’s life is sandwiched between a major breakthrough period of science in the late-19th century, and through the devastation of the two world wars. He wanted that to have real dramatic kick.”
Through storytelling that is exciting, rather than rigid and formal, we follow the trajectory of Einstein’s life through an era of global unrest: as a Jewish man facing rising anti-Semitism in Europe, surveillance by spies, and the potential for atomic annihilation. Through it all, he struggles as a husband and a father, not to mention as a man of principle, even when his life is put in jeopardy.
With a youthful, energetic visual style, Genius serves up a period feast. It was filmed amid the architectural splendour of historic Prague – where Einstein lived and taught early in his career – with authentic costumes made from vintage material, and detail from the era accurate right down to the light switches.
“My favourite thing is the [costume] fittings, and Mileva’s bows,” says Colley, who plays Mileva Maric, Einstein’s first wife. “When I put on one of her bows, I feel myself shifting into her.”
Rush highlights the sheer ambition of the production.
“This is one of the great parts – and the scale of it so big,” he says. “I had to consider the whole idea of genius in my preparation for the role, and I found the most fantastic, pithy epithet from the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: ‘Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.’”
• Genius starts at 3pm today on Nat Geo Channel, with repeats throughout the week.