The Man Who Knew Infinity

May 12, 2016
Dev Patel in 'The Man Who Knew Infinity' (2015)
Dev Patel in 'The Man Who Knew Infinity' (2015)

There may be no Afghans in lead roles in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, but The Man Who Knew Infinity does manage to insert a few genuine Indians in key places. Who else but Dev Patel, known for his work in Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Neill Blomkamp’s underrated Chappie. Patel has become the western cinema’s favourite Indian, even though he was born and raised in England to parents who migrated from Kenya.

He’s not the type of male lead that Bollywood prefers.

Nevertheless, one doesn’t require singing, dancing and rippling muscles for a biopic about the legendary mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, who dazzled Cambridge at the time of the First World War. Rookie director and scriptwriter, Matt Brown, has taken a few liberties in this story of a man with an unrivalled genius for numbers.

We’ll never know exactly what Ramanujan spoke about with his Cambridge mentor, Professor G.H. Hardy, (played with appropriate crustiness by Jeremy Irons), but most of it was probably couched in impenetrable mathematical jargon. Brown has taken that professional relationship and given it a large injection of friction and pathos.

As a result, there is a pervasive corniness about the dialogue and the scenarios in this film. It would have been less grating if only the background music had been kept to acceptable levels. Instead, every plot development is dowsed in an aural syrup that urges us to to get excited over trifles. Many people never notice background music, but if it begins to intrude on one’s attention there is no escape.

Ramanujan, who remains little known outside of mathematical circles, is certainly worth a movie, but the outlines of the man have been clouded by too much willful fictionalisation, making him seem like a beggar plucked from obscurity by the hand of fate. The central drama revolves around our hero’s difficulties adapting to the diet and climate of England, and the petty racism of the Cambridge dons who don’t believe an Indian deserves the same respect as a white man.

Hardy is the voice of reason in this debate, while his colleague, Professor Howard (Anthony Calf) is a bare-faced reactionary. Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell, provides a liberal view from the sidelines. “Let him run,” is Russell’s advice, when Ramanujan keeps producing remarkable discoveries through intuition rather than laborious proofs.

The story begins in 1913, introducing Ramanujan as an impoverished prodigy struggling to make a living in Madras while filling notebooks with earth-shattering theorems. A letter to Cambridge changes his life, bringing an invitation from G.S.Hardy – which means he must leave his doting young wife, Janaki (Devika Bhise), and his loyal but difficult mother (Arundhati Nag).

Brown opts for the full Hollywood treatment, dwelling on the agony of the young couple living in different corners of the world, while Ramanjuan follows his destiny. To make matters worse, his mum has a nasty habit of stifling the correspondence between husband and wife in the hope it will bring Ramanujan home more quickly.

Like other recent movies with a science and mathematics theme – The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, X + Y – it seems the only plan for making this material accessible to a popular audience is to treat the story as a romance, with the underlying suggestion that scientists are people just like us. It will probably remain this way until someone manages to make theorems seem sexy.

As it is, the long-distance romance between Ramanujan and Janaki is less convincing than the mathematical romance that exists between Hardy and his young protegĂ©. This relationship is given a philosophical frisson by the fact that Hardy is an avowed atheist while Ramanujan believes all his insights come from his belief in God – or Gods, considering he’s a Hindu.

This is still not enough to offset the script’s dedicated superficiality. The Man Who Knew Infinity is beautifully filmed and always watchable, but the characters struggle to avoid stereotypes, and the story-telling is so simplistic one feels almost patronised. If there is a formula for success in a mathematical romance it remains to be discovered.

The Man Who Knew Infinity
Directed by Matt Brown
Written by Matt Brown, after a biography by Robert Kanigel
Starring Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Toby Jones, Devika Bhise, Jeremy Northam, Anthony Calf, Arundhati Nag, Stephen Fry
UK, rated PG, 108 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 14th May, 2016.