Albert Einstein is so widely admired we may believe we know his full story.
He’s a rebel, a risk-taker and a ne’er-do-well who made good. What’s more, he’s our archetypical smart guy; we’re as likely to call someone “Einstein” when we mean “genius.”
A new television series will provide a fuller picture of his story. “Genius” premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday on National Geographic Network. An additional nine installments will follow each week, concluding June 20.
“Genius” is NatGeo’s first scripted series, based on Walter Isaacson’s book “Einstein: His Life and Universe.”
The first episode marks Ron Howard’s scripted TV directorial debut. He is an executive producer for the series, with Gigi Pritzker and his frequent collaborator Brian Grazer. They present a period piece spanning several years and countries. The result is a series that feels more like a group of short films with an all-star cast, stellar writing and gorgeous cinematography.
The series opens with the graphic and personal murder of a Jewish scientist in 1930s Berlin. In many ways, the scene frames Einstein’s complicated, lifelong struggle to find acceptance, love and space to do and share meaningful work.
The series slips back and forth in time, perhaps in an attempt to illustrate this search to be understood. Einstein is depicted as a teen and young man, then in his later years as a beloved physicist targeted by jealous colleagues.
These time shifts are clarified by seamless portrayals of the younger and older Einstein by Johnny Flynn and Geoffrey Rush, respectively. Both embody Einstein’s eccentricities, playful brilliance and earnest idealism.
They also bring dignity and grace to Einstein’s distress over Germany’s growing nationalism, his humiliation and fear over the rise of Nazism and his own personal failings. It becomes clear that while Einstein was widely praised in his lifetime, he didn’t necessarily attain the personal, professional or spiritual success he sought.
“From a scientific perspective … I’ve been considering … ‘natura naturans’ — ‘everything is connected,’” Einstein explains at a school dinner when he’s a teenager. “Nature isn’t a product of God; nature is God. And if we suppose that’s true, well then we must conclude the universe isn’t some mystical netherworld outside the grasp of our understanding. From the smallest molecule to the largest galaxy, every question must have a definable answer, and, well, I intend to find those answers.”
Rounding out the cast are Emily Watson as Einstein’s second wife — and double first-cousin — Elsa; Shannon Tarbet as Marie, his first love; Seth Gabel as his dear friend, Michele Besso; and Michael McElhatton as Einstein’s rival, Philipp Lenard. Samantha Colley shines as Einstein’s first wife, physicist Mileva Maric.