tv series

‘Genius’ review: Albert Einstein’s private life was as monumental as his achievements

The National Geographic series is about a life touched by politics, love and hubris and scientific accomplishment.

The National Geographic series Genius offers a worm’s eye view of the most well-known scientist in the world, Albert Einstein. Starring Geoffrey Rush as the elder Einstein and Johnny Flynn as his younger self, the series is adapted from Walter Isaacson’s 2007 biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe.

Adapting for the screen the life of a scientist is no task for the faint-hearted. The moving picture derives its thrust from the rough and tumble of an action-packed plot, while science and scientific discovery are, by their very nature, monotonous undertakings that consume those who devote their lives to them.

Writers and filmmakers therefore opt to focus on stories that have enough drama aside from scientific triumph which, at least in fictionalisation, ends up as a mere footnote to other aspects of the scientist’s life. The Theory of Everything, for instance, offered much more on Stephen Hawking’s tortuous love life than on his seminal work on string theory.

So too, on current evidence, does Genius. In a non-linear narrative that flits between the end of the 19th century and Nazi Germany, the story presents Einstein as a man full of passion not just for science but other, more tender pursuits.

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Genius.

Born into a German Jewish family in 1879, Einstein showed an early disregard for classroom pedagogy, preferring to spend time with books and conduct his own experiments. This created friction between him and his father, a businessman and manufacturer of electrical devices, who worried that his son’s quixotic ideas would ruin his prospects.

That was not to be. Einstein not only received his diploma from the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich, but went on to complete his PhD there in 1905, the same year he proposed both the groundbreaking special theory of relativity and his ideas on photoelectric effect.

Genius, which is 10 episodes long, takes a leisurely look at this life. In the first two episodes, we are offered glimpses of Einstein’s time in Zurich, where he fail his first attempt at the entrance exam, and Aarau, to which he is dispatched to prepare afresh for the test. In Aarau, he falls in love with Marie, the daughter of his host Jost Winteler.

In Zurich, he meets Mileva Maric (Samantha Colley), a fellow student at the Polytechnic and the only female candidate in the mathematics and physics department. A romance blossoms, prompting Einstein to break off his engagement with Marie.

Throughout his life, Einstein could be both astonishingly callous and extraordinarily generous, and Flynn ably captures early instances of this dichotomy.

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Time Is But a Stubborn Illusion: Genius.

The other storyline is of the mature Einstein, already a Nobel laureate and German treasure, who faces the rising tide of anti-Semitism. His ideas about his homeland begin to turn after the 1922 assassination of Walther Rathenau, the country’s foreign minister, who was a friend and a fellow Jew.

Now married to his second wife Elsa (Emily Watson), Einstein finally accedes to her request to move abroad. But even a decorated scientist must answer questions about his radical past. The second episode closes on a tense interview at the US Embassy in Berlin, as Einstein is asked to convince Federal Bureau of Investigation director J Edgar Hoover, who wants to sanitise America of Communists, of his leanings. Rush makes for a close likeness of Einstein, complete with the trademark mustache and the shock of fuzzy hair.

In the popular imagination, Einstein is the genius who imagined into existence complex but fully realised theories about how the universe works. But his private life, as perhaps all private lives are, was no less monumental. Genius goes behind the scenes to fashion a life that was as touched by politics, love and hubris as it was by pioneering scientific accomplishment.

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Love and Science: Genius.
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.