A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Awards Edition
1.85:1, Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround
Universal Studios, $29.98

A Beautiful Mind screenwriter Akiva Goldsman observes on this DVD that "mental-health movies are often like going to the zoo: you see the disease from the outside in."

Sylvia Nasar’s biography of mathematician John Forbes Nash, who was felled by schizophrenia in the 1950s, at the peak of his career, offered Goldsman a chance to take a different approach. Goldsman’s adaptation of A Beautiful Mind suggests a schizophrenic’s perception of his experience by presenting Nash’s delusions to the audience the way Nash saw them: as reality. It’s a remarkably effective idea – at the precise moment "reality" crumbles for Nash (Russell Crowe), it crumbles for us – and it’s dramatically enhanced by the visual plan designed by director Ron Howard and cinematographer Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC.

Deakins got his start as a documentary cameraman in England, and a number of his credits suggest an affinity for projects based on real events and people (i.e., Sid and Nancy, Dead Man Walking, Kundun, The Hurricane). A Beautiful Mind’s producers emphasize that the film was "inspired by" Nash’s life rather than based on it, but it is ultimately the factual underpinnings that make it more than a well-crafted weepie. Viewers familiar with Nasar’s book will likely be surprised by how reductive the film is, but Nash’s story certainly offered a bona fide Hollywood ending: after he struggled for decades with a variety of treatments, his illness went into remission (a state he still appears to be enjoying today), and he was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics in 1994 for his contribution to game theory.

A Beautiful Mind also offered the filmmakers some rich visual possibilities, given that it features noirish intrigue, an unusual love story and a timeframe spanning several decades. In fact, it’s the most visually dynamic film of Howard’s career so far. Aligning our perception of events with Nash’s required a consistent visual emphasis on his perspective, and when Deakins’ extremely mobile camera isn’t assuming Nash’s point of view, it often seeks him out with prowling crane or dolly moves, or circling Steadicam shots. Early on, this strategy underscores the anxiety and excitement of Nash’s academic life; later, it helps magnify the menace of his increasingly frightening bouts of paranoia. It also offers a contrast to the classically framed love story at the film’s core and the visually static representation of Nash’s "recovery," which finds him heavily medicated.

In his audio commentary, Howard points out the ways in which Deakins’ work helps delineate what is and isn’t real. He notes, for example, that he always wanted characters who populate Nash’s delusions to be introduced in singles filmed from Nash’s POV. (These shots are often abrupt, handheld pans, suggesting how suddenly the hallucinations come to Nash.) Howard also notes how well Deakins’ lighting underscores Nash’s state of mind: the soft, romantic light that bathes his glory days and his courtship of Alicia (Jennifer Connelly) gives way to a crisp, naturalistic look as the couple begins coping with his illness; and the shadowy, world of his delusions becomes increasingly stylized as his illness progresses.

In a Q&A at a recent industry trade show, Deakins remarked – with a nod to Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC – that he’d pre-flashed film stock to give Nash’s early days at Princeton a rich, golden hue. (Howard refers to this as "the Life Magazine look.") Unfortunately, the cinematographer doesn’t discuss his work anywhere on this DVD (though he can be glimpsed in the requisite behind-the-scenes featur-ette). Given that the supplemental material on this two-disc bonanza celebrates not only the film’s four Oscars, but also its producers, script, score, casting, makeup and visual effects, it’s mystifying that similar attention wasn’t paid to Deakins’ cinematography.

This "Awards Edition" is available in both anamorphic widescreen and full-frame versions.

– Rachael K. Bosley

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© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.