“Intuition can only carry you so far.” So says Trinity College mathematician G.H. Hardy, as played by Jeremy Irons, to his East Indian protégé, Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel), in The Man Who Knew Infinity.
The line about intuition holds true for sincerity and noble intentions in movie biopics. Such things can’t always get a filmmaker over the hump and into the realm of dramatically effective storytelling. Writer-director Matthew Brown (whose previous feature was Ropewalk) has taken on a little-known true story of considerable groves-of-academe potential. Ramanujan arrives at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1913, leaving behind a wife (Devika Bhise) and an initially disapproving Brahmin family (“It is forbidden to cross the seas!” his mother says).
This “ill-educated Indian clerk” has been brought to England by Hardy, who recognizes Ramanujan’s knack for pure mathematics as well as his disdain for traditional, rigorous proofs. The Man Who Knew Infinity charts the adversities encountered by Ramanujan in his short life: the racism; the fearsome Cambridge establishment; loneliness; and finally tuberculosis. The movie focuses on the relationship between Ramanujan, who claimed to channel his formulas directly from above, and the progressive atheist Hardy, during and after the Great War.
It’s all pretty dull, sorry to say. Movies about math don’t have to be, of course, but writer-director Brown brings a purely functional visual style to the proceedings. We experience Ramanujan’s feverish, obsessive pursuits at a discreet remove, his travails and triumphs smooshed into forgettable storytelling by one of the most enervating musical scores of the year.
As with so many X plus Y movies before it, the writing or explanation of brilliant mathematical formulas is depicted either wordlessly, often by firelight, as part of a bland montage, or else a classic “chalk-down” blackboard moment. Here, such a moment comes when Hardy, speaking before his fellow Trinity College dons, puts the chalk down at the beginning of the scene and says: “So! Now we see the work of partitions and the enormous breakthrough that has been achieved.”
Despite the infinity-grasping poetry of that achievement, plus the efforts of Patel, Irons and a supporting cast including Toby Jones and Jeremy Northam, Brown’s film is routine prose.
‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and smoking. 1:54. Kentucky.