Despite the title, “The Man Who Knew Infinity” is not a science fiction yarn, although its real-life hero was probably regarded by his contemporaries as an extraterrestrial or a visitor from the future.
Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) is, nearly a century after his death, still regarded as one of the most important mathematicians of all time. He appears to have been a natural; he never received any formal training.
Writer and director Matt Brown’s biopic follows Ramanujan (Dev Patel) from an impoverished childhood and early marriage in India to the heights of mathematical study at Trinity College, Cambridge. The bulk of the film takes place in pre-World War I England where the young savant becomes a protege of math great G.H. Hardy — although after a few weeks one could ask who exactly is teaching whom.
Granted, few moviegoers regard math as a scintillating subject for dramatic exploration. Indeed, while “The Man Who Knew Infinity” (the title refers to Ramanujan’s ability to visualize numbers so large they put the rest of us into meltdown) cannot escape talk about primes, theta functions, divergent series and whatnot, the film’s dramatic core rests on more recognizable issues.
Like racism. For all his genius, Ramanujan was regarded by many on the Cambridge faculty as a mere “wog.” The prevailing view was that as such he must have stolen his results from brighter (i.e., whiter) minds. Even Hardy begins their relationship with a rather patronizing attitude. At times the Indian guest faces physical violence.
Not to mention the isolation of being one of the few Indians on campus. A strict vegetarian, Ramanujan discovered to his dismay that in England even vegetables are cooked in lard; the combination of a poor diet and a miserable English winter probably contributed to his early death.
The heart of the film is the relationship between Ramanujan and Hardy, played by Irons as a man so dedicated to numbers that he ignores the subtleties of human interaction.
Part of the problem is that Ramanujan is an intuitive mind who looks at a problem in its entirety and instantly comes to a (usually correct) conclusion without working it through in stages. This is anathema to Hardy, who like my old algebra teacher, maintains that the correct answer is only half your grade –you have to demonstrate how you got there.
The two big brains’ differing approaches — dogged deduction vs. burst of inspiration — is the cause of much friction.
So, for that matter, are matters of faith. Hardy is an agonistic rationalist; Ramanujan a devout Hindu who sees in the eternal truth of numbers proof of an eternal creator.
Patel, who became an international star with “Slumdog Millionaire” and cemented his status as a silly innkeeper in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” plays Ramanujan as a near saint. He’s fine, but the performance is a tight one that allows for few intriguing edges.
Faring better are veteran thespians like Jeremy Northam (as the icnonclastic Bertrand Russell) and Toby Jones as an affable but third-rate numbers cruncher who provides the heart that Hardy lacks.
“The Man Who Knew Infinity” is a good-looking effort that takes advantage of the original locations. But it’s a low-keyed affair, more PBS than big-screen knockout.