Monday 22 October 2018

Movie Review: The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)

An earnest biography, The Man Who Knew Infinity is a heartfelt tribute to an unlikely mathematical genius.

In Madras, India, early in the 20th century, Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a poor yet modest young man with a natural gift for complex mathematics. Disadvantaged by a lack of advanced education, he eventually finds a job as a lowly accounting clerk and is better able to support his wife Janaki (Devika Bhise). Ramanujan impresses his bosses and they place him in touch with Professor G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) of Trinity College, Cambridge. Hardy arranges for Ramanujan to study at Cambridge so they can publish together.

In England, Hardy finds Ramanujan capable of devising complex mathematical solutions to previously intransigent problems, but lacking the necessary discipline to develop rigorous proofs needed to satisfy academic publications. Nevertheless his works are inspirational, and after a difficult start the two men become friends and inspire each other. But living in a foreign country proves difficult, as does the distance between Ramanujan and his beloved Janaki.

Written and directed by Matthew Brown as an adaptation of the book by Robert Kanigel, The Man Who Knew Infinity is a straightforward story, deriving its power from a friendship between two men from opposite corners of the world with a shared passion for math. The elegant academic milieu of Cambridge around the time of the Great War provides an attractive backdrop.

The contrasts between Hardy and Ramanujan are a large part of the film's appeal. Hardy is a confirmed atheist, and for him math is life's intellectual and emotional obsession, a career that subsumes all else, including caring about other people. For the more instinctive Ramanujan, math is a free-form extension of the spiritual world, his inspiration drawn from a profound relationship with mystic powers.

Finding common ground where Hardy allows Ramanujan the freedom to thrive and the protégé learns to appreciate some level of discipline is at the core of the film, and Brown nurtures the growing bond between the two men to maintain interest.

Unfortunately there is not much more to be offered. Pages and pages of handwritten mathematical formulae do not make for compelling cinema. On rare occasions perfunctory explanations are offered as to why any of the scribbles may matter, but overall Brown has to dance around the edges of the central subject matter, shifting the focus sideways to the people and away from the science.

Equally, Ramanujan's troubles living in England, including incidents of racial abuse, tolerating the cold climate, and adjusting to the foreign cuisine threaten to bog the film down in routine stranger-in-a-strange-land cliches.

Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons carry the film's acting load, both operating within the range prescribed by their characters' societies but releasing the necessary flashes of emotion when grandiose expectations meet harsh realities. Stephen Fry as Ramanujan's boss' boss in Madras and Toby Jones as Hardy's sidekick Professor Littlewood contribute to the supporting cast.

The Man Who Knew Infinity hardly shakes up the biography genre, but does tell its story with a quiet dignity.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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