''It's about a girl in bereavement who cannot move forward because she is paralyzed by fear and uncertainty,'' says director John Madden. The girl in this case is Gwyneth Paltrow whose last pairing with Madden, ''Shakespeare in Love,'' brought her an Oscar and she's mourning the death of her mathematician father (played by Anthony Hopkins). ''Light stuff!'' jokes the actress.
The rich story, suffused with pockets of real light and humor, was a hit on Broadway, earning playwright David Auburn a 2001 Pulitzer Prize. When Madden and Paltrow launched the play in London's West End, she won raves for her portrayal of the devastated daughter. ''She's not a star for nothing,'' says Madden. ''Gwyneth has the ability to convey fragility and vulnerability, particularly at that melancholy end of the range.'' To further ease the transfer to the big screen, Madden enlisted Jake Gyllenhaal to play Paltrow's math-geek suitor and Hope Davis her pinched sister, Claire, who swoops in for the funeral, intent on restoring order. ''Doing these scenes with her,'' raves Paltrow, ''it was like going to an amusement park. Edge-of-your-seat and fun.'' Davis agrees: ''It just seemed like a perfect fit when we started working together. The scenes are long in a play-like way, and we got to do something you don't get to do that often in film, which is to really run with it.'' The actresses were ''a marvelous physical match,'' adds Madden. ''There's a moment at the end of the movie when they're on an escalator together and you can sort of see the umbilical cord between them.''
Hopkins, as the academic genius betrayed by his mental illness, looms large over the grieving brood. Madden points to the Oscar winner's most memorable roles Lear, Titus, and Hannibal Lecter to explain his casting. ''I think that the towering rage, the sense of self-belief now brought low, is all part of that character,'' says the director. ''I always felt that any actor undertaking this role had to have played Lear.''
WHAT'S AT STAKE With the much more expensive ''Aviator'' also opening in December, will ''Proof'' get the TLC that it needs from Miramax?