The Man Who Knew Infinity

Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, The Man Who Knew InfinityEven if you’re familiar with the broad outlines of Srinivasa Ramanujan’s amazing history, this movie (trailer), written and directed by Matt Brown, is intriguing and moving on many levels.

A mathematical genius, mostly self-taught and with no university degree, Ramanujan’s insights are still being applied and their significance explored today.

“Almost a century on, his work remains a fertile field of study, an object of astonishment, and a source of pride to his native land,” says Anthony Lane in The New Yorker.

Ramanujan grew up poor in early 20th century Madras (now Chennai), India. When his talents are finally taken seriously, he is encouraged to contact G.H. Hardy, a leading mathematician at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Hardy (played superbly by Jeremy Irons) is a bit of a misanthrope. He brings Ramanujan (Dev Patel) to Cambridge and becomes his mentor, not especially to do the young man any good, but for the intellectual challenge. He insists Ramanujan develop the proofs of the theorems he derives, it seems, by intuition. But Ramanujan is “a genius who can only explain that his propensity for solving problems and equations comes from God!” says Mimansa Shekhar in India Times.

Ramanujan struggled with the proofs, resenting that they keep him from developing new ideas. The tug-of-intellectual-war between the him and Hardy forms much of the movie’s conflict. Both of them confront a calcified British academic hierarchy, reluctant to admit an Indian could match—much less surpass—English intellectual prowess.

Hardy is interested in math. Full stop. While he recognizes Ramanujan’s mathematical powers, he’s little interested in the other aspects of life that animate his protégé—his culture, religion, and love of his wife (Devika Bhise) whom he’s left back home under the hostile supervision of his mother (Arundathi Nag).

Ramanujan does have advocates at Cambridge—Hardy’s mathematics colleague John Edensor Littlewood (Toby Jones) and Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam). But it’s the start of World War I, and people’s attention is mostly elsewhere.

Jeremy Irons is perfect, and I liked Dev Patel’s performance, too. Jones and Northam are always good. As with any biopic, the plot is constrained by the actual events of Ramanujan’s life, and in his case, those events—significant and earthshaking though they were and continue to be—take place mostly inside his head. Even if we moviegoers could see them, we wouldn’t understand them! Nevertheless, I found the story moving along rather perkily, aided by excellent scenes of India and his wife’s coping with her obsessive mother-in-law.

Definitely worth seeing, and a worthy subject for a film. In India, Ramanujan’s birthday, December 22, is celebrated as National Mathematics Day.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 62%; audiences, 80%. (Why the gap? My guess is audiences are less bothered by the conventional story.)