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  • Benjamin May

Insignificance (1985) Review

One evening in the 1950’s, Albert Einstein is holed up in a Manhattan hotel room, struggling with a calculation. He is interrupted by Senator Joe McCarthy, who wants to ensure Einstein will testify before his committee as a devout anti-communist. As the two converse, Marilyn Monroe is busy shooting ‘The Seven Year Itch’ across town, with her husband Joe DiMaggio watching from a distance. After she escapes the set with DiMaggio on her tail, Monroe travels to Einstein’s room; for she too wishes to speak with the Professor. As these famous faces converge, unexpected, personal truths and fears are revealed; as the long night turns into day.


Based on the play of the same name by Terry Johnson, Nicolas Roeg’s ‘Insignificance’ is a surreal historical fantasy interrogating a multitude of themes, such as fame, identity and the nature of knowledge and reality. With his narrative and his strong, often comedic dialogue, Johnson examines the human condition- as well as the paradoxes of the modern world- through the lens of four iconic figures. He and Roeg deconstruct the familiar representations we have of these celebrities, exposing their insecurities- whether they be about fame, type-casting, the threat of nuclear destruction or impotence. In this way, they offer more nuanced versions of these real-life characters than are typically found in cinema.

However, it is questionable how effective the film is as a complete package. It can be disjointed and confusing, while some of the characters lack depth- McCarthy, in particular. Similarly, the comment being made about how a celebrity’s public image is often one-dimensional and far from the truth is not exactly innovative or profound. Likewise, Einstein’s fears about an impending nuclear holocaust are not original, nor are they particularly insightful. Although there are some brilliant sequences- one in which Monroe explains the theory of relativity is a stand out- the film seems at times to be trying too hard to say too much.


Conversely, Peter Hannan’s cinematography is striking and inventive. Under Roeg’s direction, he creates an intimate, almost dreamlike atmosphere for the characters to navigate. His utilisation of shadows and lighting adds tension to sequences, notably during a scene where McCarthy manhandles Monroe. Furthermore, he creates contrast through his adoption of various camera angles, while he cleverly implements creative techniques- such as slow motion, freeze frames and split screens- to emphasize the emotional content of scenes and the conflicts of the characters.

Moreover, the score- from Stanley Myers and an uncredited Hans Zimmer- is immersive and evocative. Although Will Jennings’ theme ‘When Your Heart Runs Out Of Time’ might be a bit kitschy, the score generally comes as a boon to proceedings, enhancing the film’s drama. Additionally, Shuna Harwood’s costume design adds to the personality of the characters, while David Brockhurst’s production design is muted and gritty; looking both period accurate and realistic.


Michael Emil stars as Einstein, opposite Theresa Russell as Monroe, Tony Curtis as McCarthy and Gary Busey as DiMaggio. Emil brings a lightness of touch to the role, which is most appreciated, though doesn’t overdo it. Russell is mesmerising as Monroe, capturing her spirit, voice and personality acutely; nearly stealing the film completely. Curtis is seedily slick as McCarthy, overcoming the scant characterisation of the role, while Busey masterfully underplays the part of DiMaggio, making him- perhaps surprisingly, depending on what you know Busey from- the most grounded of the bunch.

In closing, Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Terry Johnson’s Insignificance’ is an entertaining historical fantasy, despite its flaws. Though the film’s handling of themes feels somewhat familiar, the representation of the four famous faces involved are fresh enough to warrant giving it a watch. Furthermore, Peter Hannan’s cinematography is impressive and the score is stirring. Boasting strong performances from all in the cast- especially Theresa Russell and Gary Busey- this film is not an insignificant achievement.

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