Question herhrehre Art, Media & Literature

‘A Beautiful Mind’: how did Ron Howard use cinematography to communicate ideas about love, reality and mental illness?

Film analysis and cinematography techniques used in

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A Beautiful Mind (2001) tells the story of mathematician John Nash’s experiences with schizophrenia, and cinematography is used throughout the movie to underscore the key themes of the movie. The visual references to mental illness start early; at the beginning of the movie, Nash picks up a glass and twists it in his hands to create refraction from the sun. This image helps establish Nash as someone who sees things that others do not, in a way that is more ‘beautiful’. Towards the end of the film, when his illness has taken hold, his wife hurls a glass against the wall in frustration – this mirrors the earlier scene to represent John’s fractured mind. Many shots of John in the throes of his hallucinations are tight-angle close ups, reflecting the fact that he cannot escape from his illness. Similarly, windows are a recurring visual motif – when aligned in-shot with Nash, they show that he is trapped behind his invisible illness. He is often seen peeking through windows, underlining the paranoia his illness provokes. Reality is another key theme: while it is initially unclear which aspects of Nash’s situation are happening and which are hallucinations, there are some subtle hints. For example, all of the people in John’s hallucinations are heard speaking before they are seen, reflecting the reality that schizophrenic hallucinations are usually auditory before they become visual. Later, when Marcie runs through a flock of pigeons, none of them fly away. Love is also a key theme. In one scene, John and Alicia stare at the stars together; this image underlines the infinite and never-ending nature of their love for each other, evidenced later by Alicia’s unrelenting support of John despite his illness.


A Beautiful Mind (2001). [Film]. Directed by Ron Howard. USA: Universal Pictures.