Movie Review: The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016)

“The true story of a limitless mind”

2 Stars
The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016)

The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016)


Director: Matt Brown

Cast: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Malcolm Sinclair

Synopsis: The story of Indian maths genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, and his relationship with the English scholar, G. H. Hardy.

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British biopics of tortured geniuses are becoming something of a regular event these days, what with 2014’s The Imitation Game recounting the wartime exploits of the ill-fated Alan Turing, and last year’s The Theory of Everything chronicling the physical disintegration of science guru Stephen Hawking.   Now, arriving with much less fanfare than its predecessors, but no less gravitas, is The Man Who Knew Infinity, multi-hyphenate Matt Brown’s tale of Indian mathematics prodigy, Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel).   Although it’s commercial potential is impeded by the fact that Ramanujan is virtually unknown beyond the boundaries of mathematical academia, his importance is signified by the film’s distinction of being the only movie to date ever to be allowed to film within the walls of Cambridge’s prestigious Trinity College.   Even the award-winning Chariots of Fire, in which the College’s annual Great Court Run plays such a major part, was denied access.

A lowly accounts clerk with chronic health problems, Ramanujan had no formal training in mathematics, but possessed an innate talent for creating and mastering complex formulas.   In 1913, he wrote a letter to G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons – The Lion King, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), a fellow at Trinity College in London, containing a number of theorems which caught the attention of the eminent scholar and his collaborator, Littlewood (Toby Jones – Tale of Tales, Dad’s Army), who came to the conclusion that Ramanujan’s formulas “must be true, because if they were not true, no one would have had the imagination to invent them.”

The following year, Hardy invited Ramanujan to study at Trinity, an offer which the young man found impossible to decline, despite the fact that his religion forbade travelling overseas.   Leaving behind a loving young wife (Devika Bhise) and clinging mother (Arundathi Nag),  Ramanujan crossed the sea only to find himself greeted by a rigorous system which stifled his intuitive methods, as well as deep-seated intellectual prejudice from the more blinkered of Hardy’s colleagues, and racial prejudice from the locals.

There aren’t many movies about mathematicians, and those those few that have seen the light of day nearly all struggle to transform their profession into something that will be of interest to the layman.   Add to this the inarguable truth that academics are at best an eccentric lot, and, at worst, pompous and arrogant bigots whose cloistered lives hopelessly distort their perspective on anything that lies beyond their sphere of expertise, and it’s no surprise that the mathematical biopic remains an undernourished sub-genre.   It’s to The Man Who Knew Infinity’s credit, then that, although it makes both Hardy and Ramanujan sympathetic characters, it also portrays them as rigidly inflexible individuals who, for much of the film’s running time, fail to establish any kind of meaningful connection with one another.    There’s a kind of car-wreck fascination about their intellectual head-butting which makes the belated thawing of their relationship both satisfying and, given our knowledge of its outcome, mildly frustrating.

The Man Who Knew Infinity paints a picture of a world which seems to belong to the past, but which still exists today in the largely closed communities of the elite older colleges.   Disruption to the long-established equilibrium is not tolerated; people have a rank within its hierarchy beyond which they rarely advance.   Men like Ramanujan breach it’s walls only rarely, which makes their story all the more remarkable, and Matt Brown, who both wrote and directed The Man Who Knew Infinity, does an admirable job of capturing this institutionalised resistance to change.

While it’s unlikely to inspire many to pick up a pencil and a Casio in the hope of becoming the world’s next young maths whizz, The Man Who Knew Infinity is an intelligent and pleasingly old-fashioned film which treats its lead characters with respect while never losing sight of their flaws.

(Reviewed 27th August 2016)

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