Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Matt Brown
Stars: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Toby Jones, Jeremy Northam, Devika Bhise, Arundhati Nag, Richard Johnson, Malcolm Sinclair, Stephen Fry, Anthony Calf.
There have been a few films exploring the lives of flawed genius mathematicians – from the Oscar winning A Beautiful Mind, a biopic about bipolar mathematician John Nash and his inner turmoil, through to The Imitation Game, a true life drama about Alan Turing, who helped crack Germany’s unbreakable Enigma Code thus turning the tide of WWII. Turing is regarded as the father of the modern computer. Those films were compelling dramas driven by some superb central performances.
And then there is the fictitious Good Will Hunting, the Oscar winning drama about a maths prodigy struggling to find his place in the world. That film has some thematic connections with The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biopic of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self educated lowly clerk from India who achieved several startling breakthroughs in mathematical formulae in his brief life. Ramanujan tragically died from tuberculosis at the young age of 32, but his work changed the face of maths forever and his scientific legacy continues to grow years after his death.
But despite the potentially inspiring story it wants to tell, The Man Who Knew Infinity is a slightly dull and ironically uninspiring yarn. I found it a little dreary especially when compared to those aforementioned films.
We first meet Ramanujan (played by Dev Patel, from Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, etc) as he tries to find a job in his hometown of Chennai in India. He eventually finds work in a shipping company under the auspices of Sir Francis Spring (a brief appearance from an underused Stephen Fry) who is impressed by his innate ability with numbers. His employer sends a letter of recommendation to renowned mathematician G H Hardy at Trinity College in England, accompanied by several of his notebook filled with complex formulae. Eventually Ramanujan is invited to Cambridge University in England to work under the tutelage of Hardy (Jeremy Irons).
Ramanujan is something of a fish out of water amongst the hallowed and fusty halls of academia. He is frustrated by what he perceives as Hardy’s reluctance to publish his work, and is also subjected to the casual racism of fellow students and inbuilt prejudices of many of the professors at Trinity College who see him only as an uneducated Indian. Hardy himself finds it hard to comprehend how this uneducated Indian from an impoverished background can develop such complex formulae seemingly at will.
At the crux of the film though is the strong friendship and bond of respect that gradually develops between Hardy and Ramanujan, two men from different generations and cultures who form an understanding based around their shared love of numbers. The deeply religious Ramanujan believes that his gift comes from God, while Hardy, an avowed atheist, finds it hard to credit. Set against the backdrop of World War One, we also get a sense of that tragic waste of young lives and promising leaders of the future, and we meet such real life characters as Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam), who later became an outspoken advocate for peace.
A subplot deals with Ramanujan’s wife Janika (newcomer Devika Bhise) back home in India, anxiously awaiting word that he is bringing her across to England. But Ramanujan’s selfish mother (Arundhati Nag) hides the correspondence fearing that if she goes to England then her son will never return home. Although this subplot adds a poignant quality to the material, it adds little to the drama of Ramanujan’s struggles for acceptance, which should be the main thrust of the story.
The Man Who Knew Infinity is the sophomore feature film for writer/director Matt Brown, whose only other feature was 2000’s Ropewalk, an ensemble romantic comedy and coming of age story set on the island of Nantucket. The film based on the biography of Ramanujan written by Robert Kanigel.
Pure mathematics and the concept of “proofs” itself is a fairly dry subject for a feature film, and Brown’s prosaic approach to the material hardly brings a sense of urgency to the film. But it is the central performances that enrich the film, and both Patel and Irons share a prickly chemistry. Patel brings his usual energy, exuberance and charisma to the central role of Ramanujan, and he totally immerses himself into the character. Irons is perfectly aloof and distant as Hardy, but he brings his usual gravitas and dignity to the role. Toby Jones plays Hardy’s colleague Professor John Littlewood, and he provides a comic foil to the more serious Hardy.
This is the first feature film granted permission to shoot on the grounds of Cambridge itself, and this lends authenticity to the material. Larry Smith’s crisp cinematography gives us a strong sense of time and place.
Ramanujan’s story has been told on screen before, most notably in a biopic from Indian filmmaker Gnana Rajasekara, and a documentary that looked at his legacy from the perspective of a number of famous mathematicians. But this is the first western film to tackle the story. There is a sense that those two films may have provided more insight in the character than this glossy but fairly straightforward dramatisation of his life, which gives us little detail beyond his devotion to his work.