The Man Who Knew Infinity – Film Review by Pat V.
Director: Matt Brown
Writers: Matt Brown (screenplay), Matt Brown
Stars: Jeremy Irons, Dev Patel, Toby Jones
The Man who Knew Infinity does what it says on the tin – it tells the story of a mathematical prodigy and his obsessive fascination for number theory and infinite series. Matt Brown’s first film since his 2000 Ropewalk is a biopic of the life and struggles of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a young Indian mathematician who came to Cambridge in 1914 at the invitation of English academic, G H Hardy, and whose visionary journals revolutionised the study of mathematics.
When we first meet Ramanujan he is living hand to mouth in the slums of Madras. Though coming from a Brahmin Tamil family he has had no formal education and struggles to find employment or to convince others of influence of the validity of his mathematical research. When eventually a sample of his work is sent to a scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, he feels that recognition is at hand and that his difficulties are over. However his arrival in England does not deliver all it promises. Here, he is frustrated by the jealousy and prejudice of established scholars who cannot accept that an uneducated Indian can have anything worthwhile to offer.
Brown may have been influenced by the success of recent portrayals on screen of mathematical geniuses, however, this film lacks the drama or tension of The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything. The ingredients are all there, the colourful depiction of Ramanujan’s life in India, the ignorance and violence he faces in England, the outbreak of WW1, but under Brown’s direction they take on a blandness that bleaches vitality from the film. He seems more interested in framing a beautiful shot than in getting to the heart of his characters.
That is not to say that this film is without merit. Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is convincing as the idealistic and tortured Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons gives one of his best performance ever as G H Hardy, the chain-smoking, Cambridge don who befriends Ramanujan and describes their collaboration as “the only romantic relationship in my life”. Hardy’s main allies in Cambridge, J E Littlewood (Toby Jones) and Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam), too, are played with great sensitivity.
One only wishes the film had been injected with greater authenticity because the story it has to tell is an interesting one. Unfortunately, the director seems to opt often for the obvious and the clichéd. At the outbreak of WW1 we hear the old chestnuts of “a little trouble in the Balkans” and “it will be all over by Christmas” and when Ramanujan starts to cough it is fairly clear that this is not something that will be cured with a few spoons of Benylin. In the hands of a more subtle director this would have been a far more memorable film.
The Man who Knew Infinity reminds us that a lot of what we take for granted now is thanks to the unappreciated sacrifices of great thinkers of the past. In the Western world Ramanujan’s name is probably only familiar to people with a love of mathematics. In India however, the 22nd of December, the anniversary of Ramanujan’s birth, is called National Mathematics Day. Hopefully this film will help give him much deserved recognition among a wider audience.
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