SUNDAY TIMES - Murder, sex & science: NatGeo's 'Genius' series is a fascinating look at Einstein's tumultuous life
Sunday Times Entertainment By Andrew Donaldson, 2017-04-21 18:33:57.0

Murder, sex & science: NatGeo's 'Genius' series is a fascinating look at Einstein's tumultuous life

Physicist and mathematical genius, Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955).
Image: Hulton Archive

The scientific community has been a bit sniffy about the first season of 'Genius', the National Geographic Channel’s first-ever scripted series, a 10-parter on the life of Albert Einstein, which premieres globally this weekend (Sunday, NatGeo DStv 181).

ScienceNews, the magazine of the US Society for Science & The Public has warned viewers not to expect much: "Genius," it loftily reported, "is a dramatisation, not a documentary", and sacrifices science for the sensational.

"The first episode, for instance, opens with a murder followed by a sex scene."

So, all good then.

Genius was announced as an anthology series in April last year. According to Hollywood Reporter, each season would dramatise the life and achievements of the famous physicist.

Based on Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe, the first season leapfrogs back and forth in history, an unsubtle device that plays on its subject's fascination with time, to contrast the insufferably enthusiastic and brash young Einstein (Johnny Flynn) with the more ruminative elder physicist (Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush). Ron Howard directs the first episode.

The science is not completely done away with, but the theorising is left vague. The focus is on how a rebellious Austrian patent clerk - a high school dropout and struggling father in a difficult marriage who would end up challenging conservative academics - goes on to unlock the mysteries of the atom and the universe.

It's with the sexual chemistry, though, that things get out of hand. Young Einstein's personal affairs were extraordinarily messy, and it seemed he muddled through the women in his life. In one scene in a preview episode, lover Milena Maric (Samantha Colley), the physics student he would marry in 1903, throws a dramatic fit when she realises he has yet to end his relationship with a previous girlfriend.

The women have a hard time of it. Maric, for example, grew up in Serbia at a time when few institutions were willing to teach women anything, let alone physics. She gives up her ambitions, however, after failing exams and falling pregnant. Einstein divorced her in 1919, a few years after beginning an affair with his first cousin, Elsa (Emily Watson). She went on to become his second wife.

The older Einstein has other, more troubling concerns.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe but, despite being a Jew, the now-renowned physicist initially resists leaving Germany.

But the assassination in 1922 of Walther Rathenau, a friend and fellow Jew who was the Weimar Republic's foreign minister, is the first of a series of events that changes his mind. Another is the denunciation of his work as "Jewish physics" by the ardent Nazi supporter and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Phillip Lenard. Other anti-Semitic scientists also attack his work.

WATCH the trailer for NatGeo's first scripted series Genius


Finally, in 1933, Einstein and his wife flee to the US - but life is hard there, too. As a NatGeo synopsis puts it: "Living and teaching in Princeton, New Jersey, Einstein continues to be besieged on all sides."

His personal life remains troubled. His relationships with his children and grandchildren are fractious. At one stage, he even ends up in bed with a Russian spy, Margarita Konenkova (Ania Bukstein). He must also deal with a vendetta by J Edgar Hoover (TR Knight) to destroy his reputation. Most of all, he must face increasing pressure to set aside his pacifism to stop the Nazis in their attempts to develop atomic weapons.

Genius, ScienceNews concluded, portrays a complicated human, not just a cartoonish brainiac: "Those unfamiliar with Einstein's personal life will see the scientist in a new light. But be prepared for an emphasis on drama, sex and love stories, not science."

Again, all good.

• Watch 'Genius' on NatGeo (DStv 181) on Sundays at 8pm.

This article was originally published in The Times.