Movie review: The Man Who Knew Infinity
A paint-by-numbers picture of genius still finds a lot of soul thanks to the determined presence of Dev Patel and the timeless talents of Jeremy Irons
The Man Who Knew Infinity
Starring: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Devika Bhise, Stephen Fry, Toby Jones
Directed by: Matthew Brown
Running time: 108 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
By Katherine Monk
Numbers would appear to have no soul, no shape, no identity other than their written equivalent – an abstract sign that conveys nothing more than a count – and yet, some of the most soulful films in the modern era feature numbers in the dramatic equation.
There was Jodie Foster’s Little Man Tate, Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Good Will Hunting, James Graham’s Another Brilliant Young Mind, Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, and the recent Oscar-winner about Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything.
All focused on some young man with a particular mathematical gift, these movies function according to similar rules and structures, verging on formula. The Man Who Knew Infinity fits the pattern, but Matthew Brown’s biopic about real life genius Srinivasa Ramanujan also carries a spiritual weight that makes it feel different from the rest.
Starring Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, Chappie) as the self-taught kid from Madras (now Tamil Nadu) who found himself at Cambridge at the turn of the last century, The Man Who Knew Infinity looks at the whole undertaking of academics and rational thought from an outsider perspective.
Ramanujan’s mind was not cultivated by western ideas. He grew up poor in India, flunked out of school because he was obsessed by abstract theories, and taught himself advanced math when someone gave him a copy of George Shoobridge Carr’s book A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure Mathematics.
His lack of formal education meant he could never apply to post-secondary institutions such as Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard, so he wrote personal letters to faculty members instead. One of those letters was addressed to G.H. Hardy, a fellow of the Royal Society who saw the clear signs of genius in Ramanujan’s work and invited him to visit.
For a brief moment, the two men shared insights into the numbers that comprise and define the universe, and that’s where director Matthew Brown chooses to focus. Using the dynamic between the self-taught Indian and the well-schooled Englishman as the centerpiece, Brown is able to explore two very different sides of smart.
Ramanujan is considered “intuitive” and wild. He has great ideas, but he can’t prove them, prompting his biggest detractors to call him a phony and a charlatan along with a string of racial slurs.
Hardy is the product of western regimentation: a man who loves solving a good problem, but loves the proof for it even more. Hardy believes in Ramanujan, but his colleagues are not as generous, which means a lot of this movie has nothing to do with math whatsoever.
Much of it focuses on the parent-child dynamic between the British Crown and Colonial India, and how those patronizing relationships are mirrored all the way down the line as Ramanujan is forced to stand up for himself as a thinker, as well as a man, complete with sexual urges and an ego.
Trading his peach-fuzz and puppy-love appeal for a strong-jawed and broad-shouldered physicality, Dev Patel brings emotional dimensions to Ramanujan. He also opens a window to the math genius’s mind, allowing us to share in Ramanujan’s frustration with the western ways.
For Ramanujan, mathematics isn’t just a pastime and a passion. It’s about expressing god and the divine.
When his mentors question his theories and equations, for Ramanujan, it feels like questioning the Almighty himself. He’s offended, and more importantly, he feels entirely misunderstood.
Patel balances the bitterness on both shoulders and wears it in every scene, which doesn’t exactly boost the sympathy quotient, but it does help the drama by keeping the emotions in a man tin, where things smell of leather and pipe tobacco and aging sports equipment.
Irons and Patel create a bit of magic with their mathematical dance, so even when Brown’s script bogs down in cliché and the female characters are swept into the corner of every scene, the viewer has something meaty to process.
We’re also immersed in a rather interesting time as the First World War breaks out in the midst of Hardy and Ramanujan’s struggle to nail down ‘partitions’ – a number’s theory problem that has a thematically suggestive name.
At times, it feels like Downton Abbey meets the Theory of Everything: A gorgeous ode to genius and those it infects with paradigm changing ideas. But it’s the basic story that Brown nails best, for the best, as he introduces us to a man few have ever heard of – but should know by name.
Srinivasa Ramanujan’s notebooks sat in Cambridge’s Wren Library for decades until they were rediscovered in the late ‘70s and universally lauded for their insights: They are now used by scholars trying to understand string theory, black holes and quantum gravity.
You don’t have to do the math: Ramanujan saw the world as numbers. People proved the problem he could not solve, which means even the mathematically hindered will find something to relate to in this gentle history lesson with a paint-by-number heart.
The Man Who Knew Infinity opens in select markets May 20.
THE EX-PRESS, May 17, 2016