Growing up poor in Madras, India, Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar earns admittance to Cambridge University during WWI, where he becomes a pioneer in mathematical theories with the guidance of his professor, G.H. Hardy.
Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons play real-life mathematicians in this plodding, overly dutiful biopic.
A beautiful mind is reduced to simplified dramatic equations in “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” an easily digestible fish-out-of-water biopic of Srinavasa Ramanujan, the India-born mathematical prodigy whose tutelage under the English academic G.H. Hardy gave rise to some of the field’s more remarkable 20th-century discoveries. As tends to be the case when filmmakers turn their attentions to matters of the mind, the prevailing narrative strategies here are geared almost entirely toward the emotions — and so, despite some duly stimulating discourse between lead players Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons against the hallowed backdrop of Cambridge, this sophomore feature from writer-director Matthew Brown (2000’s “Ropewalk”) emerges an overly dutiful account of physical hardship, cultural prejudice and inevitable tragedy that, in form and spirit, never channels the inventiveness and ingenuity of its subject’s work. Middling specialty-release numbers await.
Audiences hoping to learn more about Ramanujan’s contributions to number theory, continued fractions and other branches of mathematics might do well to consult other dramatic treatments of his life, including last year’s little-seen independent drama “Ramanujan,” various stage adaptations and Robert Kanigel’s 1991 biography, from which Brown adapted the script. Still, it’s rarely a good sign when a picture ends with a celebratory salute to its subject’s accomplishments while leaving viewers with a merely rudimentary grasp of what those accomplishments were. And such is the case with “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” which, for all its weighty-sounding talk of proofs and theorems, effectively pitches its story at an audience whose interest in higher-level math is presumably rather less than infinite. Like last year’s furrowed-brow biopics “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything,” though with less surface gloss and fewer emotional hooks, Brown’s movie makes the case for its protagonist as a figure of extraordinary intellect —“extraordinary,” of course, being convenient shorthand for “too boringly cerebral for a lowest-common-denominator audience.”
That’s in keeping with the general attitude toward Ramanujan (Patel) when we first encounter him in 1913 Madras, India, as an impoverished 25-year-old whose obsessive, self-taught mastery of mathematics has taken precedent over all other commitments in life, including his job as a shipping clerk and his recently arranged marriage to Janaki (Devika Bhise). While he comes to love his wife over time, their relationship is destined to be a mostly long-distance one: When Ramanujan writes a letter to Hardy (Irons) and sends along some of his notebooks, the professor immediately recognizes the untempered brilliance of the young scholar’s work, and invites him to come to Trinity College and pursue his studies further. Seeking the appreciation and recognition that have eluded him at home, and hoping to be published immediately, Ramanujan leaves behind his teary-eyed bride and his overbearing mother (the rather aptly named Arundhati Nag) to embark on the long, dangerous ocean voyage to Britain.
But neither fame nor fortune are there to greet Ramanujan at Cambridge, where the dons order him to keep off the grass and the dining hall is sadly short on vegetarian options. (In a coup that improves the film’s production values significantly, Brown and d.p. Larry Smith were permitted to film at the real Trinity College.) Worse, the creative impulses that drive Ramanujan’s work seem to have no place in an academic environment characterized by stifling English rigidity at best, racially charged hostility at worst — the latter quality exemplified in particular by the cartoonishly cruel and fatuous Professor Howard (Anthony Calf). The others are not much more welcoming at first, with the friendly exception of John Edensor Littlewood (a fine Toby Jones), the mathematician with whom Hardy will later develop the famous Hardy-Littlewood conjecture regarding twin primes. As it happens, prime numbers are also a source of eternal fascination for Ramanujan, as ever more elaborate and intellectually far-flung theorems issue forth from his pen and into his notebook — the work of a mind operating on pure instinct, if not divine inspiration.
But the one who ironically hinders the flow of Ramanujan’s genius the most, at least initially, is Hardy, who sees and admires his gifts but is rankled by his attendant lack of discipline and formal training. And so he urges the young man to put aside out-of-the-box thinking and focus on his proofs, those meticulous, step-by-step demonstrations of absolute certainty that will hold up to rigorous outside scrutiny. But to Ramanujan, the process feels like safe, tedious busywork. He knows it’s his life’s mission to continually take risks and leap into uncharted voids, and in this he has an unexpected ally in another famous mathematician, Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam), who urges Hardy not to hold his protege back.
The arguments between Ramanujan and Hardy form easily the most absorbing aspect of “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” as their eloquent clash of wills is shown to be not just intellectual but ideological in nature. Hardy, an atheist, is presented as a slave to rational thought, but for Ramanujan, a human calculator with the soul of a poet, the beauty of math is inextricable from its fundamental mysteriousness; proofs can only go so far to explain the inexplicable, and he sees the face of God reflected in every equation he writes. It’s a stirring sentiment that would ring truer if Ramanujan’s work, presented here in elegantly indecipherable lines of script, served more than a purely decorative function. Brown seems wary of putting his audiences to sleep, but a measure of brainy, concrete exegesis here would not have gone awry.
From his breakout turn in “Slumdog Millionaire” to his subsequent performances in “Chappie,” the two “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” movies and HBO’s “The Newsroom,” Patel has a lot of experience playing smart individuals who get thrown into the deep end and manage to succeed through a canny mixture of earnestness and opportunism. The familiarity of that type, however, at times works against his attempts to exude the sort of singular intelligence that’s called for here; in any event, he’s unable to convey something that hasn’t been adequately grounded in the script. Irons, deliciously plummy as ever, fares better as the stubborn, sometimes short-sighted but ultimately loyal and generous Hardy, and his performance has a sharpening effect on Patel’s own, bringing out a welcome level of engagement and gravitas in his younger co-star.
But even their largely absorbing rapport can’t ward off the movie’s slow descent into a rhythmically and dramatically plodding cycle of misfortune. Ramanujan’s health steadily worsens, as signaled by a nagging tubercular cough, accompanied by regular cutaways to Janaki despairing from thousands of miles away, with no one except the mother-in-law from hell for company. (Well, that and the soundtrack, which tends toward overly exoticized crooning whenever the movie drifts southward.) “The Man Who Knew Infinity” builds to a moment of hard-won recognition from Ramanujan’s peers at Cambridge, followed by the sobering acknowledgment that he was taken from the world far too soon; if this towering intellectual had lived, just imagine how many more of his accomplishments might have been relegated to a cursory mention in the closing credits.