THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY
Director: Matt Brown
Cast: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Toby Jones, Devika Bhise, Jeremy Northam, Arundhati Nag, Stephen Fry
MPAA Rating: (for some thematic elements and smoking)
Running Time: 1:48
Release Date: 4/29/16 (limited); 5/6/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | May 5, 2016
It's understandable that a movie about a world-renowned mathematician might not effectively communicate the subject at which the person excelled. It's less reasonable—and far less forgivable—that such a movie would push that person to the sidelines in favor of another person.
The Man Who Knew Infinity is ostensibly and eponymously about the life and work of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the Indian mathematician who overcame a dearth of formal education and prejudice to produce thousands of mathematical equations, theorems, and proofs. By the end of the movie, we might not know what any of these are or mean (save for one, which is explained), but we also have likely expected as such. What's frustrating is that we don't come to know the man apart from the devotion to his work, which remains a mystery.
Furthering that feeling is the way the movie frames Ramanujan's story. Director Matt Brown's screenplay (based on Robert Kanigel's biography) splits the story's focus and makes it as much—if not more—a story about a man who knew Ramanujan. That character, the mathematician's English mentor, is the one who changes, whose lessons matter, whose voice begins and ends the movie, who learns something important, and who gets, not one, but two big speeches to summarize everything we should take away from the movie.
Ramanujan is a secondary character to an extent. He exists here primarily to improve the worldview of G.H. Hardy, the Trinity College fellow who takes a chance on the young man. Everyone else sees Ramanujan as an "other"—an outsider whose lack of a formal education and country of origin make him perceived as inferior within the academic and cultural landscape of England. As a result of the way it tells its story, the movie falls into the same trap. Ramanujan remains something of an "other" for the movie, too.
The movie begins in 1920, with Hardy (Jeremy Irons) writing about his experience with Ramanujan—"the one romantic incident in my life," the avowed skeptic and rationalist calls it. In Madras (now Chennai) in 1914, Ramanujan (Dev Patel) struggles to find paying work as he continues his lifelong, self-taught pursuit of pure mathematics. Eventually, he finds work as a clerk at the local port, finally allowing him to live with his wife Janaki (Devika Bhise), who arrives in the city with Ramanujan's overly doting mother (Arundathi Nag).
Through that job, Ramanujan's mathematics work arrives at Trinity College in Cambridge. Hardy, at first believing the entire affair to be a prank on the part of his colleague John Edensor Littlewood (Toby Jones), invites Ramanujan to England to devise mathematical proofs for what could be revolutionary work in the field.
Ramanujan finds it difficult to fit in with academia. Save for Hardy and Littlewood, the faculty members of doubtful of his talents. The college serves only meat-based meals (even the potatoes are cooked in lard), which go against his religious traditions. At home in Madras, his mother is obstructing his relationship with Janaki, who is awaiting word to join him in England. Most of the time, Ramanujan is holed up in his room, going over his work at the behest of Hardy, who insists that his mentee's intuition about the truth of the math is not enough. Hardy, an atheist, wants hard evidence for any proposition that is put in front of him.
That becomes the movie's central debate: between Ramanujan's faith in his work and Hardy's distrust of everything that cannot be backed up by proof. The debate itself is not as important as the point that Hardy does not understand Ramanujan in any meaningful way. He sees the young man as an "experiment" of sorts, and one of the character's major turning points arrives when Ramanujan forces Hardy to look at him as a person who has sacrificed important parts of his life to be here. It's a simple statement that he is married that begins the process, and what's strange is that the furthest Brown goes in revealing Ramanujan as a person is the fact that he has a wife whom he misses.
As biography, the movie is about as straightforward as one could imagine. It presents the challenges that Ramanujan faced—prejudices against his background, which are heightened by with the start of the Great War, and his declining health—without ever really putting them in a context that addresses anything meaningful about the man himself. Through Hardy's guided tour of the college's library, it gives Ramanujan an aspirational goal that telegraphs the movie's final shot. It offers nothing by way of explaining the importance of his work aside from having characters inform the audience that his work is important.
Worst of all, though, it places the significance of Ramanujan's life and work upon Hardy's experience with them. The Man Who Knew Infinity is not Ramanujan's story. It's the man's story as filtered through Hardy. Ramanujan remains a mystery whose life and work apparently do not warrant a story that is exclusively their own.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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