Bruce Beresford and David Williamson to team again on Isaac Newton biopic

(L-R) Rhys-Muldoon, Hugh Parker, William McInnes and Colin Smith in the QTC play (Photo credit: Jeff Busby).

In their third collaboration following Don’s Party and The Club, David Williamson and Bruce Beresford are developing Nearer the Gods, a biopic about Sir Isaac Newton, the eccentric 17th Century English scientist and mathematician.

Adapted from Williamson’s play which was staged by the Queensland Theatre Co. in 2018, the drama laced with humour will trace Newton’s struggles to persuade the sceptical Royal Society to publish his revolutionary discoveries including formulating the laws of motion and universal gravitation.

The comedy revolves the latter part of his life, much of which he dedicated to theology and predicting the end of the world and the second coming of Christ in the year 2060.

“It’s an amazing story; I’m surprised it hasn’t been filmed before,” says Beresford, who is working with producers Al Clark, his long-time collaborator Sue Milliken and UK-based Simon Bosanquet, who produced Evelyn, Beresford’s 2001 Dublin-set drama starring Pierce Brosnan and Julianna Margulies.

“Newton is widely regarded as the greatest scientist of all time, ahead of Einstein, but elements of the Royal Society were jealous of him and reluctant to publish his material.”

The director is in the process of casting four or five “big names,” which he figures he will need to secure the finance for the film budgeted at about $US15 million.

In the QTC production directed by Sam Strong, Rhys Muldoon played the protagonist with Matthew Backer as atheist astronomer Edmund Halley of Halley’s Comet fame, who helped get Newton’s work published, and Kimie Tsukakoshi as Halley’s wife Mary.

William McInnes played King Charles II alongside Hugh Parker as astronomer Christopher Wren and Colin Smith as Newton’s nemesis, physicist Robert Hooke.

Planned as a UK-Australian co-production, it will be largely shot in the UK next year with post in Australia. The producers were well advanced with casting and raising the money before the pandemic struck. “It’s looking promising,” Beresford says.

David Williamson and the QTC production.

In the QTC’s production notes Williamson says: “When I was at Monash University becoming, without huge enthusiasm, its first mechanical engineering graduate, the only thing that left a lasting impression was the brilliance of Isaac Newton, whose laws underpinned everything we were taught.

“In one huge leap he took us from almost total ignorance, to a complete understanding of the laws that govern the motion of the Universe. It left me with a feeling of awe at the mind that made such a breakthrough.

“But a play? I hadn’t thought of it until I started reading about how it all happened. I found, to my amazement, that but for Edmund Halley, of Halley’s Comet fame, the greatest leap forward in human knowledge we’ve ever been gifted would never have happened. And he couldn’t have done it without the assistance of his wife Mary’s keen mind.

“Newton might have been brilliant but he was also quite mad. And the mutual hatred between he and Robert Hooke, a scientist who couldn’t bear the thought someone was brighter than he was, almost derailed the whole thing.”

Meanwhile, Beresford is putting the finishing touches to a passion project, An Improbable Collection. The half-hour documentary spotlights renowned 20th Century English painters Sir William Orpen and Sir Frank Brangwyn.

Much of their work ended up at the Mildura Arts Centre in Victoria thanks to the bequest of Senator Robert Elliott and his wife Hilda.

The director and his DOP daughter Cordelia Beresford shot most of the film in Mildura, augmented with archival footage from the UK. Nicholas Hammond is doing the narration and Mark Warner is editing. He hasn’t offered it to a network yet.