Running time: 111 min
Directed by: Morgan Matthews
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall & Sally Hawkins
MEET Nathan Ellis, a ‘wizard to us mere muggels’ as his ever-loving and tender father puts it adoringly. Diagnosed somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, Nathan, played with astonishing delicacy for someone so young by Asa Butterfield, is somewhat of a maths prodigy.
Unfortunately the premature death of his father (Martin McCann) leaves his already socially unaware son at the precipice of not being like others and unequipped for life outside patterns, shapes and concrete formulas. His mother, Julie, superbly played by Sally Hawkins (All or Nothing, Blue Jasmine), cannot live up to the bond between father and son as she struggles on with Nathan’s little idiosyncrasies, a full-time job and the full-time weight of grieving for her soul-mate.
Jumped from junior to secondary school due to his advanced intellect, Nathan finds himself paired with pot-smoking, multiple-sclerosis suffering, former maths whiz himself, Mr Humphries; a teacher with somewhat unorthodox teaching and lifestyle habits. Under Humphries’ (Rafe Spall – Life of Pi, Hot Fuzz, Anonymous) coaching, Nathan absorbs – and is absorbed further into – the world of maths. A rarity at school due to his genius and tender age, Nathan is inspired by the International Mathematics Olympiad and his unquenchable thirst for mathematical knowledge.
Nothing exists outside one exam.
Of course he passes and enters Team UK’s trip to Taiwan to be lectured and tested further by the best of the best. Some of the movie’s greatest moments are to be found in the East. Not only due to the cultural differences between Old Blighty and life under the Red Flag, but Nathan’s untouchable maths prowess back home seem, to him at least, to be average against the best the globe has to offer. The rest of Team UK is a mismatch of nerds (ahem) from all walks of life. The notables are polar opposites, namely Isaac, the Joker of the pack and Luke (Jake Davies), the latter being the Oscar Wilde of mathematical theories and self absorbed lover of his own intellectual weight. To hear this young actor speak on theories you or I will never be-able to comprehend will leave every viewer feel like they’ve just failed their 11 plus for the nineteenth time.
Oh, and as well as being a maths genius, our protagonist is somewhat unwillingly a bit of a ladies’ man. Mid teens, in love with maths and hormones abounding, two female peers vouch for his arm, not that he’s aware of it; if anything he’s concussed by the pressure of adoration.
Back home his mother and Humphries grow close in his absence. Spall plays a blinder in this film. In fact, for me, he drives it from a damn good film to an excellent one. Every scene involving the physically degenerating Humphries fills the theatre with delight and empathy; from his meeting with the MS counsellor to his first group therapy session he grips one by the marrow. The body may fade but the will conquers all.
Another character worthy of mention is that of intrepid tour guide and wanna-be scout leader Richard (Eddie Marsan), head of Team UK. His optimism is boundless, his ferocity unparalleled… his chosen six must pick up a medal to shake up China’s grip on the IMO.
But let’s not forget the one thing standing in the way of Nathan’s certified medal in the finals, Taiwanese prodigy Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), the girl who trips brain to heart leaving a palpable change to the film’s vein. Under her spell, Nathan Googles an equation for love (yes, apparently there is one), looks at it and has to face emotions he’s been unable to fathom since the death of his father.
The finale, well, you can find that out for yourself. Yes, this is a movie about Asperger’s, mathematics, cultural differences and a sub-culture us mere muggels rarely see. But, and it’s an important one; this is a film about coming of age, love, grief, loneliness, companionship and a view of a tangled world through the eyes of logic turned in on itself.
Writer James Graham, director Morgan Mathews, cast, crew the BBC and BFI have delivered a cult classic and one I thoroughly hold both thumbs high to. I’m gonna see this again.
5 out of 5 Nerds