X + Y

Art & Culture

This the third of three movies about maths geniuses, and in some ways – although more low profile – it is the most accessible. Whereas Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking (featured in The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything) are familiar names, the star of X + Y is an unknown (and fictional) teenager, whose difficulties with interpersonal communication are a barrier to his development as a genius.

Director Morgan Matthews made a lovely documentary 7 years ago called Beautiful Young Minds about the International Maths Olympiad and a number of the people involved in it. His first feature is based on that film, creating fictional characters, some of whom are based on real originals. Nathan (Asa Butterfield) is a 15 year old with prodigious mathematical gifts, who lives with his widowed mother and who finds it hard to relate to anyone else, even his mother (Sally Hawkins). He acquires a teacher (Rafe Spall) with his own physical challenges, and as a result of this one to one tuition, becomes involved in the contest to be selected for the IMO, under the auspices of Eddie Marsan, playing an eccentric maths professor.

The delicate balancing act that the film has to manage – and which it achieves with great success – is between the following competing elements. Nathan's enduring grief and loss at his father's death (in a car crash, with Nathan in the car); the difficulties with his supportive and long-suffering mother; his relationship with the 2 maths teachers (who have interpersonal issues of their own); Nathan's interest/indifference to girls (who he meets through the IMO); and the most complex issue of all – how to convey enough of the mathematical complexities that Nathan grasps (and we can't), without either confusing or patronising the audience.

Because Matthews navigates these difficulties so skilfully, it's easy to overlook how complex and potentially problematic they could have been, and credit must also go to scriptwriter James Graham, for putting together a script in which everything is given its fair dues, without toppling in any one direction to the detriment of others. The film shares with The Theory of Everything not only the notion of a maths genius with a severe disability (Nathan has Aspergers), but also the bright and unusual idea of making all the characters likeable, and avoiding the pitfall of phoney villains (something which The Imitation Game falls foul of). The film has time for everyone, and allows them to show what it is they have to offer, rather than making them plot devices whose only role in life is to obstruct our hero.

Butterfield made a big splash in Scorsese's Hugo, and just three years later, has developed into an actor of skill and subtlety, able to convey non-verbally how his character manages to function in a world which is simply not geared to his preferences; only in the world of mathematics can he swim as gracefully as other people do in their everyday social life. Matthews has assembled an impressive cast list of British talent, with Spall (son of Timothy) especially impressive as the teacher who knows what its like to fail, and is determined to make sure that Nathan doesn't.

The ending may not fulfil your expectations, and is none the worse for that. Do make an effort to go and see this film which will not receive anything like the marketing budget that Imitation and Theory have had. It's as good as one, and better than the other.


Front Row Films

Content supplied by the excellent front row films website check the site and join up for many more reviews and general all-round film goodness.