One was a repressed Engish homosexual; the other was a wacky and womanising German. They were made for each other, and this TV film charted the course of their relationship rather well.
It had a message about science and war. The professors of the University of Berlin were all busy inventing poison gas, and the English bigwigs banned german science journals from the University library. Meanwhile the real science was being done by the outsiders.
David Tennant made Eddington’s seriousness and goodness convincing. He really is an excellent actor. I saw him twice at Stratford this autumn – as Hamlet and Berowne. His Hamlet was gripping – combining forceful emotional energy with an attention to the words that gave you quick glimpses of what was happening underneath. In Love’s Labours Lost he simply ruled over a rather naff production; his audience control was amazing – from cosy fun to seriousness in a millisecond. In this film he made you see Eddington’s intellectual excitement, in a way quite different from Andy Serkis, who had the easier job of being manic as Einstein.
The war background was sketched in quite well. I wasn’t sure about the man presenting Eddington with a white feather. I thought only girls did that.
The science had to be simplified of course – but they did the gravitational bending of space-time rather well with a tablecloth, a loaf and an orange.
They had to simplify the scientists too, unfortunately, and this brings me to my one complaint. Jim Broadbent (best of film actors – his Gilbert in Topsy Turvey my all-time favourite among all film performances) was Sir Oliver Lodge, but the script let him down a bit. For the goodies and baddies pattern of film drama to work, he was made an obscurantist, defending Newton’s universe in the face of the evidence. From what I can gather, he was a lot better than that; he had himself made important contributions to the science that Einstein developed, and his objections to General Relativity were serious good scientific questions, not trivial ones.
More interestingly, the death of his son Raymond – important in the filmfor making him anti-German – had another effect. Longing for further contact with his son, he investigated spiritualism, and became a convinced convert to the cause. His book Raymond, about communication with his son after death, sets out his faith, and the evidence for it, written in a very scientific style.
Wanting to concentrate on its main theme, this film did not even mention this development in Lodge’s story. So there is scope for a new film, concentrating on the paradox of Britain’s top scientists being lured by his grief into believing hokum. If Jim Broadbent played the part again, it could be fantastic.