The Man Who Knew Infinity

(2016) ** Pg-13
108 min. Edward R. Pressman Film Corporation. Director: Matt Brown. Cast: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Malcolm Sinclair, Stephen Fry.


The story is in the telling, so they say. Writer-director Matthew Brown sets out with an arresting true story in the life of extraordinary mathematician Srinavasa Ramanujan, but tells it in a milquetoast manner: The Man Who Knew Infinity can repeat its formula by rote, but develops no breakthrough theory of its own.

Oddly, writer-director Brown hasn’t made a film since his obscure debut fifteen years ago: Ropewalk, an ensemble rom-com set in Nantucket. And yet here he is, with Ramanujan’s story—based on Robert Kanigel’s bio The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan—a bona fide cast, and production values to rival the likes of The Theory of Everything, this picture’s most obvious precursor. The pinch-me situation doesn’t quite rise to that of Ramanujan himself, an autodidact whose persistence won him a passage from East Indian obscurity to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1913, but perhaps Brown can relate.

Dev Patel plays Ramanujan with the same gaping earnestness and amusing eagerness that long ago became his stock in trade, and the actor thus deserves some credit for Infinity’s lack of imagination in conceiving of Ramanujan as a character. In Madras, Ramanujan woos and wins a bride, Janaki (Devika Bhise), then wriggles away from both her his doubting Brahmin family when Cambridge calls in the person of established mathematician G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons). Ramanujan’s raw talent for mathematical theory befuddles and frustrates the Cambridge dons, most of whom dismiss his work out of sheer racism or the more practical matter of Ramanujan’s habit of not showing his work in proofs.

It’s up to Hardy, then, to drive forward Ramanujan’s work, assimilating him without blotting his genius and proving to the university establishment and the mathematical world that Ramanujan is one for the ages. In the process, Ramanujan, Hardy, and the professor’s confidant John Edensor Littlewood (Toby Jones) become friends and conspirators with common interests and common goals. But wouldn’t you know it? “Publish or perish” begins to look a lot more like “publish and perish” as the Great War borrows Littlewood and Ramanujan, barely past thirty, develops a telltale cough.

The Man Who Knew Infinity sturdily synopsizes the key points of Ramanujan’s life while focusing on a classic “unlikely friendship.” Ramanujan’s faith proffers an obvious mystical contrast to Hardy’s avowed atheism, and the spirit and—oh, let’s just say it—“beautiful mind” of the former wear down the stodgy defenses of the latter. It’s here that Brown invests all his drama, but by reducing the two men to familiar archetypes, Brown must rely on Irons’ nuance and Patel’s lack thereof to fill in what’s not on the page and struggle to make what is (lines like “There are no proofs that can determine the outcome of matters of the heart”) sound like human speech.

The truths of this true story were undoubtedly more complicated. Ramanujan was described as shy and Hardy as deeply uncomfortable with social situations (and even his own reflection), purportedly identifying to friends as homosexual. The meeting of these minds and souls, and a deeper dive into the mathematics themselves, might have been considerably more interesting than the dully “inspirational” The Man Who Knew Infinity, and it’s a pity Brown can neither literally nor figuratively “show the work.”

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