The Man Who Knew Infinity
How long have we waited for a decent telling of the story of the self-taught Indian genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan, who was to mathematics as Charlie Parker was to music or Don Bradman to cricket.
Directed by Matt Brown
Written by Matt Brown, based on the book by Robert Kanigel
108 minutes, rated PG
At last, a film even mathematicians can love! How long have we waited for a decent telling of the story of the self-taught Indian genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan, who was to mathematics as Charlie Parker was to music or Don Bradman to cricket. Except that this is not that film: this is another film, the one that spoils the way for a really great film about a man who deserves a more unconventional approach.
In his second film, writer/director Matt Brown takes the path more travelled, to give us a potboiler biopic with a great cast and almost no credibility. Ramanujan’s actual life has more than enough for the conventional biopictorialist – a hard start, much misunderstanding of his genius, a hint of racism – but so much more besides. Why this failure of nerve? Just a guess: pitching a film about mathematics would be hard; setting it in two locations, Madras and Cambridge, would be expensive, especially as it is a period story, taking place mostly from 1914 to 1919. Then there is the inherent racism of film marketing, where a brown hero is worth less at the box office than a white one. This is a cruel, nasty reality of the film business, rarely acknowledged. The casting of Dev Patel as Ramanujan was all but inevitable in that sense: get the guy from Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel!
Let’s start again: if you don’t mind a broad melodrama about a fascinating and mysteriously gifted man who revolutionised mathematical thinking, then this is your film. Assuming you don’t care about accuracy in his life story.
Most of the film takes place in Cambridge, after Ramanujan has been invited to England to explain the theories he put forward in a letter to the eminent Cambridge mathematician, G. H Hardy (Jeremy Irons), in 1913. Neither the cold and aloof Hardy nor his warm and witty fellow mathematician, J E Littlewood (Toby Jones) can quite understand the work, nor how a self-taught Brahmin from Tamil Nadu could come up with it. Where are the proofs, they ask? Ramanujan shrugs: he sees the theories whole, in his mind, not the proofs. Racist dons abhor his presence; radical ones like Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam) entreat Hardy to let him run and hang the need for proofs. Back in Madras, the wife of the young genius (Devika Bhise) pines for her husband, unaware that his scheming mother (Arundathi Nag) has not mailed her letters, nor forwarded his.
Just a few points of order: Ramanujan’s brilliance was well established in Indian mathematical circles, and he was well published, before he went to Cambridge; his wife was ten years old when he married her, something unremarkable in his own culture at that time but too inconvenient to include here; he and Hardy did clash often but Hardy also did an enormous amount to champion his brilliance, with the support of many Cambridge colleagues. The cause of his illness is disputed and may have had nothing to do with his suffering from the climate in England. At least the religious aspect in the film is true: Ramanujan did ascribe his gifts to his personal gods, and Hardy never wavered from his atheism.
It would have been entirely possible to tell this story with the truth and gravity it deserves. Instead, Brown opts for cornball emotions and soppy music, predictable plot divisions into hero and victim, and the usual causes: it was the racism what done him in, and the damp climate. I’m sure those things didn’t help but they do not do his story justice, nor honour his achievements or explain his gifts. In 2011, Roger Spottiswoode was said to be working on a film based on a play. Let’s hope this is not the last attempt to tell his incredible, baffling story.
The Man Who Knew Infinity