The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some thematic elements and smoking
Running Time: 108 min.
Cast: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Toby Jones, Devikha Bhise, Jeremy Northam, Stephen Fry, Arundathi Nag
Director: Matthew Brown
Screenplay: Matthew Brown (based on the 1991 biography, "The Man Who Knew Infinity: A life of the Genius Ramanujan", by Robert Kanigel)
Review published May 15, 2016
The Man Who Knew Infinity looks at the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan (Patel, Chappie), a mathematician from India who would become famous in the math world for his prodigious work in the early part of the 20th Century. Ramanujan had a gift for mathematics that was seemingly ahead of what anyone else had been dealing with at the time, claiming that the numbers and formulas just come to him out of divine origin. His work would soon draw interest in England, causing Ramanujan to leave his wife Janaki (Bhise, The Accidental Husband) and mother (Nag, Paa) behind to pursue his calling among the top minds in the field at the time, hoping to realize his dream of getting his mathematical journals published.
Director and screenwriter Matthew Brown's film is diluted a bit by focusing an inordinate amount of time for what should have been a supporting character, Ramanujan's mentor at Trinity College in Cambridge, England, G.H. Hardy (Irons, High-Rise). Hardy took Ramanujan under his wing at a time when others discriminated openly to the young man, not only because he was a Indian, as well as one who was mostly self-educated, but that he also had not yet proven his many revolutionary mathematical breakthroughs in the traditional manner of scholars. It's a film about a man who took extraordinary risks to realize his dream, and yet the filmmaking plays everything on the safe side for the entire duration, content to cast as wide a net as possible, unwilling to risk losing any particular swath of the viewing public by trying to be emotional insightful or requiring any effort of intellectual investment.
As an atheist who doesn't believe anything based on faith and intuition, Hardy is skeptical about this young man, demanding that before he accepts the work, Ramanujan will have to show his proofs, which doesn't come as naturally to him, having done all of his work outside of the realm of formal academia. While Hardy is shown as instrumental in getting the rest of the faculty at large to take Ramanujan as a credible colleague, the film's elevation of Hardy to a co-lead character is the kind of thing that so often occurs when films need funding to bring to life. They feel they need a known actor (generally a white actor) to sell the film to certain critical markets, and the story gets re-tooled to get the funding necessary to finally get it made, even if it comes at the expense of the integrity of the work. (It should be noted that Jeremy Irons, is about thirty years older than the real-life Hardy during the events of the film.)
A good deal of the drama of the film deals with Ramanujan's difficulty in assimilating to his new environment of wealth and privilege in England, coming straight from a life of poverty and religious community in Madras (now Chennai) in India, as well as his difficulty in channeling his knowledge into the traditional style of British mathematics taught in the highest levels of academia. As such, his enthusiasm begins to wane as he is confronted by a perceived lack of belief in his work without proofs, as well as the glass ceiling he begins to realize exists for those who aren't already part of the old-boys club of white men of a certain class and privilege, most of whom would rather not even address Ramanujan's next-level math theories, much less try to understand them.
Brought up with a strict vegetarian diet due to his religious convictions, Ramanujan also has difficulty eating in a place where meat is consumed at nearly every meal, and even vegetables are cooked in animal fat, he begins to miss the comfort of being back home, with his wife, his people, and his way of life. Further compounding the issues is the lack of communication going back and forth to his wife, thanks to the meddling of his mother, who doesn't want Ramanujan to permanently uproot away from her by bringing the love of his life to him in England.
Although the life of Ramanujan is a matter of history, well known among mathematicians and other scholars of the era, as the vast majority of those who watch The Man Who Knew Infinity will be unfamiliar with the man in question's life and work, I'll refrain from talking about what importance he ultimately plays that makes him worthy of a film, and what happens during the rest of his life beyond his initial pursuits in England. However, what I will say that though there may be a couple of genuine surprises her and there, and the film benefits from an interesting subject and actors of good quality, there is a by-the-numbers delivery to the story that makes it feel less inspiring as one might imagine such a film should be. Also, with the exception of one specific formula, and the looks of astonishment of those we're told have nearly unparalleled IQs, the film delves very little on the specifics of Ramanujan's work, or what truly what makes it so revolutionary.
After similar films on groundbreaking figures in the realm of math and science such as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, The Man Who Knew Infinity feels like a lesser effort all around, in production and execution, mostly because it lacks a thematic through-line to elevate the story into something more artistic than just a collection of historical achievements embellished by a friendship that may or may not have been there, abusive acts of racism that may not have actually happened, and an unnecessary love story that feels more like a sugar-coated selling point. While it's enjoyable and interesting enough for a recommendation for general audiences, and the terrific work by Patel and Irons brings many scenes to life, there's still an aftertaste to the watered-down, audience-friendly way Brown has determined to tell his tale. Such a complex subject deserves more complexity in bringing his story to life. Any man whose work is still being used to study black holes shouldn't suffer the irony of having to share the spotlight.
©2016 Vince Leo