Take Time to Meet “The Man Who Knew Infinity”

Take Time to Meet “The Man Who Knew Infinity” May 17, 2016

Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel, in "The Man Who Knew Infinity"
Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel, in “The Man Who Knew Infinity”

I wasn’t sure I’d like this movie.  After feeling underwhelmed by Stephen Hawking’s biopic, I feared this would be another Theory of Everything.  I dreaded the prospect of another glamorous hagiography featuring men in black robes bustling around hallowed academic halls, only this time with a more darkly pigmented lead character.

But I’m glad I gave The Man Who Knew Infinity a chance.  Yes, the academic gowns are back, but the title character, Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, is certainly interesting enough to warrant his own movie.  And director and screenwriter Matthew Brown has crafted a solid film, focusing upon the clash of cultures and personalities between his two leads.

When we first meet Ramanujan in Madras in 1914, he’s unemployed and living in poverty.  When he’s not scrawling mathematical formulas on the floors of Hindu temples, he’s scrabbling for employment.  Finally, a curmudgeonly boss (Stephen Fry, seen too briefly) takes a chance on the degree-less Ramanujan and gives him a clerking job.

Meanwhile, Ramanujan, convinced he has the prodigious gifts of another Galileo, is sending his math theories abroad in hopes they’ll be appreciated and published.  Finally, Cambridge professor G.H. Hardy takes notice and invites Ramanujan to England.  The Indian math genius must leave both his mother and his wife Janaki behind, but promises to send for them as soon as he can.

The bulk of The Man Who Knew Infinity concerns itself with the relationship between Ramanujan and Hardy.  Almost immediately they clash, as Ramanujan functions intuitively, putting his mathematical inspiration on paper almost as quickly as Mozart composed his musical scores.  His British mentor Hardy, on the other hand, is a man of rigor who demands proofs showing the accuracy of Ramanujan’s brilliant conclusions.  The battle between these two strong wills naturally leads to tension and outright anger, before a mutual respect and even affection develops.

Director Matthew Brown also underscores his characters’ religious differences.  Ramanujan is a devout Hindu, immediately setting up an altar with incense and a statue of Ganesh in his otherwise Spartan lodgings.  By contrast, Hardy is openly atheist and unashamed to ally himself with pacifistic colleagues as the Great War breaks out.

At first, I was afraid that a God’s Not Dead showdown might develop between these two, after Ramanujan smugly tells Hardy that the latter is not truly an unbeliever but simply dislikes God.  Fortunately, The Man Who Knew Infinity is an, um, infinitely better story than this and respects its characters too much to let this happen.

For one thing, despite their differences, these two leads share a lot in common.  Though their methodology varies, both are in love with the elegance and beauty of pure mathematics, seeing it as an art form no less than painting.  Both are married to their work, Hardy by lifelong choice and Ramanujan by virtue of geographical separation from his wife and mother.

One of the pleasures of this film is seeing the mutual respect forged between these two great men.  Hardy may not share Ramanujan’s belief that his equations are a god’s thoughts made manifest, but finds common ground in acknowledging the god of Spinoza and Einstein, who is one and the same as the universe and its underpinning formulas.

Director Matthew Brown is lucky to have two expressive lead actors for his film.  Dev Patel, best known for playing the main character in Slumdog Millionaire, infuses Ramanujan with plenty of ego, feistiness, and determination.  The prolific Jeremy Irons is solid as usual, going beyond what could have been a caricature of the stiff upper lip, absent-minded British professor to give Hardy a vulnerable, flawed humanity.  Through his relationship with Ramanujan, Hardy realizes that his nose is often too far buried in abstract theorems and is spurred to care for his protégé.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is far from a perfect film, however.  Most deleteriously, the characters of Ramanujan’s wife and mother are underdeveloped.  We know there’s tension between them, but we never get the full ‘why’ of their tension.  Similarly, it would’ve been interesting to understand the dynamics of the connection between the supergenius and his illiterate wife.

Ramanujan with his wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) in Madras

It would’ve been nice, too, if Brown’s movie would’ve taken more of a stab at elucidating the significance of Ramanujan’s work.  Beyond letting us know that it has relevance for contemporary cosmological research, we perceive little else.

For better or worse, Brown prefers to explore math metaphorically.  Ramanujan and Hardy’s joint efforts have something to do with mathematical partitions (whatever that means).  Symbolically, Hardy’s acceptance of Ramanujan represents partition breaking within an exclusionary society.

And this does point to a significant way in which this film is far superior to the aforementioned (and similarly titled) The Theory of Everything.  Stephen Hawking’s film sanctified its characters, going so far as to brighten a ridiculous number of scenes with a gloaming’s light.

The Man Who Knew Infinity has the integrity to show the darker side of humanity.  Ramanujan is roughed up on the streets by xenophobic soldiers on combat leave.  Many Cambridge academics reflexively disparage him.

More than once, Ramanujan is dismissively called Gunga Din, the Indian water boy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem.  The folks using this epithet fail to recognize its irony.  Despite his impoverished origins, Kipling’s character, like Ramanujan, is the moral superior of those who beat and condescend to him.

3.5 out of 5 stars

 (Parents’ guide:  This film is rated PG-13 and has some brief violence and strong language.)

P.S.  Thanks to my friend and fellow critic Kenneth Morefield for turning me on to this film.  In the ecumenical spirit of Ramanujan and Hardy, here’s the link to his subtly Christian review.

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