I'm not sure that a guy who openly confesses to having scored a mere 350 on his math SAT is the target for director Matt Brown's engaging film The Man Who Knew Infinity, an intelligent yet involving film that tells the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a man whom most consider to be one of, if not the, greatest mathematicians in history. Played with sensitivity and sophistication by Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), Srinivasa Ramanujan was a divinely inspired genius whose formulas have, for the most part, held up to this very day.
As a film, The Man Who Knew Infinity is a rarity in that it is a deeply intelligent film that doesn't shy away from its intelligence. Yet, perhaps wisely, the film is not actually about mathematics and I'd dare say it's not even about Ramanujan himself. Instead, using Ramanujan as its guide, this is a film about genius and obstacles and perseverance and, perhaps most of all, one's desire to leave a permanent impact on the way at any cost.
The film is set in the pre-World War I era, Ramanujan being a self-taught Indian guided by his Hindu faith to understand the world using mathematical concepts and theorems I couldn't possibly begin to understand or explain. Ramanujan's self-education is rivaled only by his self-determination, a determination that takes him from his home in Madras, after trial and error, to Trinity College at Cambridge and into the world of G.H. Hardy, a brilliant British eccentric who initially adopts a teacher/student relationship with Ramanujan that slowly evolves into more of a mutual admiration society and friend of some sort. Irons is simply stellar here as he somehow makes a pure intellectual without an ounce of divine inspiration into an emotionally resonant guide who hardly ever expresses an emotion.
The Man Who Knew Infinity is as much about Ramanujan's journey as it is anything else. Married off in an arranged marriage to Janaki, played beautifully by newcomer Devika Bhise, Ramanujan faces overt discrimination at Cambridge as a non-Brit despite the fact that India was still a British colony at the time. A devout Hindu and vegetarian, Ramanujan nearly starves himself to death during the wartime rationing and initially leaves his new wife and family behind, a strictly forbidden act, in order to chase this vision he has of publishing these theories that he believes passionately will change the world for the better.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is also about society and about our relationships, though the film fails completely to delve into Hardy's fairly well known homosexuality. While this isn't a serious lacking, it feels rather jarring for anyone who who has knowledge of this story and how Brown constructs the film in such an interpersonal way.
There are very few films anymore that seem to rise to the surface about unfamiliar people, yet it's fairly safe to say that the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan isn't one know to very many people outside the mathematics circle. Tis' a shame, really, as the story is riveting from beginning to end yet presented in a way that avoids the usual American cinematic histrionics in favor of a more thoughtful and quiet approach. Supporting player Toby Jones, as Littlewood, is dependable as usual as is Stephen Fry as Sir Francis Spring and Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell.
The Man Who Knew Infinity is currently on a limited arthouse run nationwide with IFC Films and opens in Indianapolis on May 13th at Landmark's Keystone Arts Cinema.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic