Biopics are a tough thing to get right. Either your subject is so well known that you can’t possibly do them justice, or you pluck someone out of relative obscurity and introduce them to the world. A daunting task that ‘Adventures of a Mathematician’ tries to take on to the best of its ability.
Stan Ulam (Philippe Tlokinski), a Polish immigrant and mathematician, is a teacher at Harvard at the beginning of the second World War. He lives with his younger brother Adam (Mateusz Wieclawek) and is desperately trying to get the rest of the family to the United States. When he receives a job offer to go work on a new type of bomb in New Mexico he leaves his brother behind with the idea of serving a bigger cause. A decision that will haunt him and take from him all that he holds dear.
Accurate as the depiction of the man may be, it’s almost impossible to connect to as an audience. “I’m a mathematician, not a computer” he utters, but he could’ve fooled me. Ulam seems almost inhumanly disconnected from everything. His proposal to his future wife Francoise (Esther Garrel) seems to be one of pure convenience. When later on he starts to doubt whether or not such destructive devices as the hydrogen bomb should even be built, it almost doesn’t even register as a crisis of faith. It takes the better part of an hour before a sudden personal loss seems to have some kind of influence on him. Only in a final confrontation between him and his brother does the cold façade start to show cracks. By then you simply don’t care anymore.
Are there redeeming factors? Sure. Klein directs with a firm hand; the cast makes the absolute best of barely fleshed out characters and the cinematography by Tudor Vladimir Panduru really brings the decade to life. But other than that, the numbers don’t add up for this distant and calculated non-adventure.
ADVENTURES OF A MATHEMATICIAN will screen as part of the 2021 Jewish International Film Festival’s lineup. Tickets for screenings between February 19 and March 16 are available HERE
JIFF 2021 Review – ‘Adventures of a Mathematician’
Reviewed online (screening at JIFF 2021), January 22, 2021. Rating: TBC. Running time: 102 min.
PRODUCTION: A Dragonfly Films production in association with ZDF/Arte. Producers: Nell Green, Joanna Szymanska, Lena Vurma, Paul Zischler. Executive producers: Simon Baxter, Klaus Dohle, Arno Hazebroek, Evangelo Kioussis, Nicolas D. Sampson, Mary Young Leckie.
CREW: Director/screenplay: Thorsten Klein. Cinematography: Tudor Vladimir Panduru. Editing: Agnieszka Liggett, Matthieu Taponier. Music: Antoni Lazarkiewicz.
CAST: Philippe Tlokinski, Esther Garrel, Sam Keeley, Joel Basman, Ryan Gage, Sabin Tambrea, Mateusz Wieclawek, James Sobol Kelly, Alberto Ruano, Camille Moutawakil.