Review: The Man Who Knew Infinity


Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dec. 22, 1887 – April 26, 1920) was a self-taught mathematician who made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series and continued fractions.

NOTE: I have no idea what those terms mean. When it comes to anything math-related beyond addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, I am as useless as a dog in a room full of Frisbee designers.

I do understand that, working in isolation, Ramanujan (Dev Patel) also rediscovered theorems that were previously know in mathematical circles. His life changes drastically when his letter to the celebrated Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) is answered with an invitation to the school.

Turns out that Hardy initially thought the letter was a prank by his friend and colleague John Littlewood (Toby Jones). Once he realizes that the letter is genuine, he can hardly wait to meet the mind behind it.

Ramanujan leaves his mother (Arundhati Nag) and wife (Devika Bhise) to travel from India to England. He hopes to be published, but finds himself challenged in an unexpected way. He has always maintained that his concepts are gifts. “You wanted to know how I get my ideas? God speaks to me!” Hardy will have none of that, informing the young man that “intuition is not enough” and demanding he produce proofs of his many groundbreaking formulas. Eager to move forward with his work, Ramanujan finds the prospect of churning up verification of his formulas to be a colossal waste of time. The fact that he is self-taught is another factor: does he have the practical chops to put the math on paper?

Then there's the issue of God. When Hardy states that he is an atheist, the kid snaps back, “No sir. You believe in God … you just think he doesn't like you.”

The notion of a man giving the credit for revolutionary mathematical formulas to a deity is fascinating. I wanted to learn more. Did he commune verbally with his God? Was the information provided in flashes of insight? Or was he some new kind of charlatan? Writer-director Matthew Brown allows one brief scene where an attempt is made to describe Ramanujan's perception of the world around him in poetic terms. It passes in the blink of an eye.

And what about those formulas that made me dizzy just reading them? Brown offers one elaboration of a Ramanujan theory. I won't pretend to have understood it, but the explanation made it a bit easier to relate to the man's work. I appreciated the effort.

So if the film doesn't examine Ramanujan's work in detail, and if it veers away from the specifics of the contributions he claims to have received from the divine, what does the movie focus on?

There's a half-baked romantic subplot about the mathematician being so far from his bride, but Brown appears less than committed to getting up close and personal with the arranged marriage, leaving us with a few wistful glances into the distance and little more.

We get a look at Ramanujan's time at Cambridge. In addition to skepticism, he must deal with racism, including a brutal assault from a group of young thugs. Ramanujan enjoys support from some of the other Indians on campus, but the cultural gulf is enormous. An incident dealing with his vegetarian diet underscores the gap. It also provides Patel one of his best scenes.

The heart of the movie is intended to be the relationship between Ramanujan and Hardy. It works to a degree. Jeremy Irons certainly has the crusty part of the character down. The lighter moments work well enough, though watching Irons be nice – impish, even – is a bit weird. Dev Patel continues his post Slumdog Millionaire career with another solid performance as an enthusiastic, put-upon young man.

Together they navigate the by-the-numbers screenplay of The Man Who Knew Infinity, making the clichés seem a bit less clichéd. Want to know more about Ramanujan? Read one of the books about him, or check out the documentary on the man. Want a serviceable, but routine biopic? Look no further.