Director Howard Davies outsmarts himself in this BBC adaptation of Michael Frayn’s play, a speculative look at the real-life 1941 meeting between the two top nuclear physicists left in continental Europe, Danish Niels Bohr (living with his wife, Margrethe, in Nazi-occupied Denmark) and German Werner Heisenberg. Former teacher & pupil, they're now wary friends at best. So why has Heisenberg come calling? To pick Bohr’s brain? Probably, but what does he (already) know, and what could he be looking for? Technical know-how to help start (or perhaps stop) a Nazi nuclear program? A job, or a defection? (But which way?) Is it simply political gamesmanship or a ploy to get info on the American nuclear project at Los Alamos? On stage, the production (at least as seen on B’way) played out in a sort of stylized cyclotron, mirroring some of the particle beaming principles discussed, transfigured into isotopes of personality, teased out into a play that was intriguing and confounding in equal measure. In the tele-version, Davies simplifies & clarifies the action using varying color saturation levels to let us know when episodes are happening as we watch them, and when they’re being recalled decades after the fact. (He also shows a propensity for pointless encircling tracking shots.) Nice as it is to have so much puzzled out for us, it also thins the texture, diluting the play into much ado about nothing. (No small gaffe when the atom bomb is at stake.) Fortunately, there’s a pitch-perfect cast (Stephen Rea, Francesca Annis, Daniel Craig) to keep the theatrical chain reaction going.
DOUBLE-BILL: Michael Frayn remains best known for the farcical NOISES OFF (sadly mishandled in the Peter Bogdanovich film). Instead, try his original screenplay for CLOCKWISE/’86 with John Cleese, a gem of comic frustration once past a tricky Act One set-up.