THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, Shockya
Director: Matthew Brown
Written by: Matthew Brown from Robert Kanigel’s book
Cast: Jeremy Irons, Dev Patel, Devika Bhise, Stephen Fry, Toby Jones
Screened at: Review, NYC, 4/25/16
Opens: April 29, 2016
Despite the universal numeracy requirement that students may plod through from pre-school to kindergarten, it’s safe to assume that most people have no idea what pure math is all about. This is true as well for the people in India that form one subject of writer-director Matthew Brown in “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” based on Robert Kanigel’s book, The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan. One answer proposed by the story is that pure mathematics is like a painting without the color, which makes the subject perhaps as abstract as fine music. Brown’s biopic of Srinivas Ramanujan, who died at the age of 32 of tuberculosis after leaving behind several notebooks of proofs that some thought impossible, shows the man as a poor Brahmin from Madras living with his mother (Arundhati Nag) and wife Janaki (Devika Bhise). Ramanujan is so absorbed in math that he seems to care nothing about his poverty-stricken surroundings but shows great love for his pretty wife (which is more than his mother can do).
In 1913 Ramanujan (Dev Patel), working as an accountant in Madras with a boss who is aware of his ability with numbers, sends a letter across the seas to G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) at Trinity College in Cambridge, England with a segment of his notebooks and receives an invitation to go to the university to continue his work. His hair newly cut, he leaves by boat despite his mother’s warnings that travel across the ocean is forbidden, showing up in G.H. Hardy’s studio dressed with a bespoke suit. When Hardy, an atheist, asks where Ramanujan gets his formulas, particularly since he is unable to show the process, the Indian replies that his god informs him while he is sleeping or praying. Hardy is a stranger to any theory that cannot be proven and repeatedly insists that Ramanujan supply the steps he takes (which is also a requirement in American schools that insist “show your work.”
In the England of 1914 on the cusp of war, Ramanujan is met with expected hostility, in one case coming from a professor whom he shows up and is thrown out of the classroom and also from some members of the general population who call him a Wog and tell him to go home. Surviving one serious beating by soldiers who don’t know why they are sent to the front while this guest is living in relative luxury, Ramanujan sets about thinking up original formulas.
The major theme of the film is the friendship of Ramanujan with the curmudgeon Hardy, who simply cannot understand where his protégé gets his information. Hardy has his traditional pals in Prof. Littlewood (Toby Jones), who is Sancho Panza to Hardy’s Don Quixote, and is jokingly referred to as a figment in Hardy’s imagination. This friendship is wholly credible as Ramanujan is fluent with the language of his adopted country albeit not with the King’s English spoken by pipe-smoking Hardy.
Dev Patel’s incredible performance as the poverty stricken resident of Mumbai seeking to win a huge jackpot in Danny Boyle’s 2008 film “Slumdog Millionaire” makes him the obvious choice here. He unfolds a performance as a young man who may well be considered arrogant by mathematicians envious of Ramanujan’s God-given brilliance. We find a country whose class-centered society exists still, though perhaps by now some of the professors at Trinity are women. The dialogue rises to gentle wit particularly with the exchanges between Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam) and G.H. Hardy, and despite Ramanujan’s death at 32, we leave the theater feeling good.
Rated PG-13. 108 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B+