Review: The Man Who Knew Infinity
The story of Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar (a very sincere, quietly powerful Dev Patel) who was born and raised in India in the early 1900s. He had a way with numbers that eventually saw him travel to Cambridge University in England where he would be mentored by cranky professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), his polar opposite in many ways. Leaving behind a new wife (Devika Bhise) and hysterically disapproving mother (Arundathi Nag, given a ridiculous task), and facing much local prejudice, and great opposition from the majority of the fussy, rigid Cambridge academia, Ramanujan nonetheless perseveres in his quest to have his mathematical formulas published. Hardy, for his part begins as a rather clinical mentor constantly trying to get Ramanujan to show his workings to numbers the young Indian insists come from a divine inspiration. Eventually though, Hardy comes to admire and respect the man…whilst still trying to get him to show his bloody workings. Kevin McNally plays Ramanujan’s chief dismissive critic, whilst Jeremy Northam plays a more sympathetic academic, and Toby Jones plays Littlewood, a Christian colleague of Hardy’s who also sees something special in Ramanujan (and who also used his own mathematical knowledge to help out the Brits in ballistics in WWI mid-film).
I’m terrible at maths and I don’t normally find Jeremy Irons the most warm and inviting actor around, so I was a little wary of this 2016 true story from writer-director Matt Brown (who directed one film 15 years or so prior). It sounded stuffy, technical and boring as fuck. Although a little corny at times, I’m happy to report that it’s actually a really solid biopic that is more interesting and moving than I had expected. I’m so angry that I had never heard of this obvious genius before, and I’m very glad to have seen the film. It doesn’t start off terribly well, though. While the idea of this mathematical genius being raised in colonial India where he’s treated as second class by snobbish Brits is interesting, the relationship between Ramanujan (Dev Patel) and his wife and mother seems strangely incoherent to me. I couldn’t quite work out what was going on there, and what I did understand during these scenes was incredibly corny and eye-rolling. The mother in particular was an excruciating stereotype I just couldn’t take to. I did however think that pompous windbag Stephen Fry was pitch-perfectly cast in a small role as Ramanujan’s snooty and initially quite bigoted employer Sir Francis Spring.
I had no idea what any of the numbers talk here was about, but Dev Patel is absolutely wonderful in the title role, and it’s fun seeing all these pompous British academics getting their noses out of joint that an Indian can do more than they can just off the top of his head. To that end, Toby Jones and especially Jeremy Irons are ideal as the academics, with Jeremy Northam (looking a lot like Robert Donat, actually) playing one of the more supportive ones, a character I would’ve liked to have seen more of. Irons can be a very chilly and pretentious actor, but here he’s playing a role well-suited to him: an aloof, often cranky academic who resists Ramanujan’s seemingly God-given talents for mathematical equations in favour of showing clearly explained mathematical workings that can be distinctly proven. It’s one of Irons’ best performances as a flawed but ultimately decent man, who just isn’t terribly good with human interaction nor is he initially very open-minded towards Ramanujan’s stubborn refusal to do things the Cambridge way. Or are he and his colleagues the stubborn ones? There’s a particularly terrific performance by Kevin McNally as one of Ramanujan’s less arsehole-ish critics, which isn’t saying much because he’s still a complete arsehole to Ramanujan. It’s always nice to see veteran Richard Johnson as well in his final screen role as the university’s Vice Master.
What really makes this film special though, is the tragedy of the Ramanujan character. This man had a genius brain, but the misfortune to be trapped in a body with a limited lifespan. It’s incredibly sad that a man dealing with numbers and infinity would have a body that was tragically finite. I may be terrible at maths (and I absolutely am), but I recognise that this man was a true genius who should’ve had many, many more years on this Earth to bless us with that genius. I found it interesting that this guy claims to know what he knows because of God, yet Irons’ character by contrast is an Atheist. It’s a film that seems to champion maths but also possibly God. I’m an Agnostic Atheist myself, but the way the film goes about this issue is in such a manner that it didn’t alienate me. I believed that Ramanujan believed that his skills were God-given, and I can’t prove him wrong. Either way, it was just interesting to see a film that champions the combination of two seemingly completely opposed schools of thinking (mathematical/scientific and theological/spiritual).
Although the scenes in India are both corny and somewhat difficult to follow, this is an otherwise interesting, moving, and important story about a very important and brilliant man. Familiar plotting or not, it’s a must-see at least once. Dev Patel is outstanding, Jeremy Irons is perfectly used.