'The Man Who Knew Infinity': TIFF Review

The story is unique; the story-telling awfully familiar.

Dev Patel plays Indian math genius Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons a Cambridge don in Matthew Brown’s biopic

It’s hard to make numbers sexy, especially on screen, but the life of Indian mathematics genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, who revolutionized the field in the early 20th century, was an extraordinary story waiting to be told. Hailing from a poor Brahmin family in Madras, he arrived in Cambridge in 1914 and set the university on fire with his brilliant mind and startling mathematical formulas which, he said, were sent to him by God. If The Man Who Knew Infinity could share just a tiny fraction of his visionary originality, it would be a far more engrossing film than the respectable but all too conventional biopic it is. Highly engaging performances by Dev Patel in the lead role and Jeremy Irons as his curmudgeonly mentor gradually warm up the Cambridge story, but the Indian part feels perfunctory and unconvincing. Given the subject’s obscurity with the general public, it should find limited openings after its festival travels.

Writer-director Matthew Brown, whose previous feature credit is the rom-com Ropewalk, seems much at ease in the world of pre-war academia and all its brilliance, snobbishness and prejudices. His admiration and affection for Ramanujan is obvious, and one only wishes the film had been injected with greater authenticity into recounting the story of his life, which burned so brightly and so briefly.

While The Theory of Everything, another film set in the world of Oxbridge academia, managed to shift the topic away from theoretical physics and concentrate on Stephen Hawking’s marriage, The Man Who Knew Infinity gropes for a personal angle. The hero’s long-distance marriage to a woman back in India remains in the background. His evolving friendship with Cambridge don G. W. Hardy, who championed his brilliance against racism and prejudice, is the real core of the film. 

Ramanujan was born in Madras in a strictly observant Brahmin family, but was too poor to even live with his young bride Janaki (newcomer Devika Bhise). Miracles are fairly common in the story, and the first is being hired as an accountant in a firm that somehow recognizes his unusual talent. With the help of his boss, a math fan, he sends a letter to Hardy and receives one back inviting him to come to Trinity College, Cambridge, to work on his ideas. Leaving Janaki with his mother, he sails to England and settles into Cambridge.  All of this is told in short scenes that fail to build any suspense.

Dressed like an elegant Englishman, he arrives in Cambridge with two thick, minutely penned notebooks full of original formulas that dazzle and nonplus the learned profs. Where on earth, asks Hardy, do these formulas come from? The young man finally confesses that he receives them directly from God while he sleeps or prays. As an atheist Hardy can’t believe him, but looks as intrigued as the viewer at this revelation.

Brown’s screenplay brings math into the dialogue often and without embarrassment. String theory, prime numbers and continued fractions may not be the stuff blockbusters are made of, but they certainly turn on the math department. Simply put, it all seems to boil down to discovering original formulas and then proving they are true. The self-taught prodigy Ramanujan has no problem coming up with the first, but proving what he intuitively knows is beyond his meager education.

Hardy is a martinet who forces proofs down his throat like spinach, making him spend the time on these boring parts for his own good. Hardy’s rough edges are smoothed out by his friend Prof. Littlewood (a pitch-perfect Toby Jones), who along with Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam) are members of Cambridge’s progressive faction, sorely tested by the onset of the first World War. Their display of upper class wit and poise in every social situation, whether sparring with Ramanujan’s detractors or showing him the ropes in Trinity’s hallowed halls and apartments, lends great conviction to the setting.

In his meatiest role since he burst on the scene in Slumdog Millionaire, Patel well expresses Ramanujan’s nobility of soul; it would make him stand out from the other students even without his great gift. At first glance, the tall, gangly Patel is an odd choice to play a short, stout mathematician. Yet he captures his essential passion, dignity, and overweening conviction that his formulas are right.

Irons also rises to the role. Not quite an absent-minded professor, he portrays Hardy as a loyal and upright eccentric, whose defenses break down before the plight of the unfortunate genius he has come to love.

An endearing anecdote is told in which Hardy grumbles about his nondescript cab number, 1729, and Ramanujan begs to differ: it’s a good number,  the smallest that is expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways. Today 1729 is known as the Hardy-Ramanujan number.


Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentation)
Production companies: Edward R. Pressman Film Corp., Animus Films, Cayenne Pepper Productions, Xeitgeist Entertainment, Marcys Holdings
Cast: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Stephen Fry, Toby Jones, Devika Bhise
Director-screenwriter: Matthew Brown
Producers: Edward R. Pressman, Jim Young, Joe Thomas, Matthew Brown, Sofia Sondervan, Jon Katz
Director of photography: Larry Smith
Production designer: Luciana Arrighi
Music: Coby Brown
Costumes:  Ann Maskrey
Editor: J.C. Bond
Sales Agents: Mister Smith Entertainment, CAA

Not rated, 108 minutes