Film

The Man Who Knew Infinity Strives to Show the Math Genius of Srinivasa Ramanujan

by

The makers of The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biopic of mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, realize that they're dealing with one of those dancing-about-architecture subjects that most viewers will find unfamiliar, so they try not to wallow in details. When we see Ramanujan's notebooks, which contain hundreds of pages of complex formulas, we're invited to view them only as a pattern, a formal design. We are told that higher mathematics came to Ramanujan as a kind if vision — "I don't know, I just do," he declares — and the filmmakers hope that we'll recognize his passion even if we can't don't understand its inspiration. Of course, my assumption of innumeracy could be a misjudgment based on my own limitations, since the film's poster quotes the London Mathematical Society as saying that it "outshines Good Will Hunting."

We first see Ramanujan, earnestly portrayed by Dev Patel, in Madras in 1914, kneeling on the sidewalk chalking equations. A compulsive but unschooled mathematician, he can't find a job worthy of his skills in India ("I'm doomed... like Galileo," he tells a roommate) but eventually, he manages to bring his work — several hundred pages of advanced equations — to the attention of G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), who invites him to London's Trinity College at Cambridge University. Hardy, almost alone among his colleagues, recognizes the genius in Ramanujan's notebook but presses him to take a more traditional approach and work out the lengthy proofs behind his flashes of intuition.

And that's as close to a plot as you'll find in The Man Who Knew Infinity, the story of Ramanujan's five-year struggle to make peace with the British establishment at Trinity. There is, in fact, a great sense of Englishness to the film, simply owing to the effective use of the real Trinity College. That Englishness, though, is sometimes depicted in a puzzling fashion. (Why does Hardy — no athlete — hold a cricket bat while going over figures with Ramanujan?) There's not much of an effort to create distinct characters, although Irons and Toby Jones perform well as sympathetic scholars. The film sometimes plays like a truncated comedy sketch, a parody of historical drama; Bertrand Russell pops up every twenty minutes or so with a one-liner, and the mathematicians speak in academic jargon, like scientists in 1950s science-fiction films trying to explain giant radioactive insects.

Halfway through the film, director Matthew Brown (who adapted the screenplay from a 1991 biography by Robert Kanigel) seems to notice that nothing much is happening, so he tosses in a surfeit of melodramatic turns and new mini-plots: World War I, the absence of Ramanujan's wife Janaki (Devika Bhise), the growth of Russell's anti-war movement, even a sudden zeppelin strike. These elements cruise at random through the center of the film and occasionally collide, as in one confrontation with Hardy in which most of Ramanujan's troubles — racism, his wife, the patronizing manner of the older mathematicians and his insistence on using instinct over proof — converge in a single scene. It's a little bit over the top, but this is a film in which a debate over partitions (the calculation of the number of different ways of writing an integer — I looked it up) is turned into a face-off between academicians that would not be out of place in a Rocky movie (with Hardy at the side taking Burgess Meredith's role).

Ultimately, there's not much in the way of surprises holding the film together — we can assume from the beginning that most of Ramanujan's mathematical discoveries are accurate — so the film rests on an assortment of small victories or defeats during his brief time at Trinity. He becomes ill; he gets better. His work is challenged; his work is accepted.

Perhaps mathematicians may see more in it, but for the most part The Man Who Knew Infinity is safely and comfortably lightweight, serious in tone but soft in execution, finally coming to rest with a kind of greeting card spirituality in which Ramanujan's new age aphorisms melt even the committed atheism of Hardy. Though the film celebrates science, it concedes to, and even embraces, its subject's somewhat foggy math-mysticism.

comment

Tags