The Man Who Knew Infinity (12A) | Close-Up Film Review


Dir. Matt Brown, UK, 2015, 109 mins

Cast: Jeremy Irons, Dev Patel,

The film introduces us to Srinivasa Ramanujan, an important figure in the history of mathematics, who may well be famous in India but is probably unknown to most members of the general public in the Western world. Stories about science and mathematics are difficult to dramatise because the important stuff is cerebral and not dramatic. A Beautiful Mind and The Theory of Everything did it by focusing on the personal story of its protagonist; Ramanujan’s story is not so obviously dramatic.

The story starts in India in the early years of the 20th century, where Ramanujan (Patel) a self taught and instinctive mathematical genius is earning a living as a shipping clerk, while working on his theories, having been thrown out of college. Unrecognised in his own country, Ramanujan writes to Cambridge mathematics professor G.H. Hardy (Irons), who, impressed by the originality of the young man’s thinking, invites him to England and acts as his mentor, helping him to develop his theories.

Patel engages our empathy in these early scenes and we feel for him and his young wife Janaki (Devika Bhisé) in their separation. We also get a sense of excitement at times from Hardy’s reaction to the implications of Ramanujan’s mathematical theories, while the tragic end of the story is emotionally moving with Janaki’s realization that she will never see her beloved husband again. A lot of the film though is somewhat cerebral. Ramanujan’s achievement, which revolutionized thinking about mathematics, was concerned with mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions. This is doubtless manna to the soul of a mathematician but it is difficult for the lay person to get excited about figures on a blackboard.

What makes the film however is the impeccable performances and the relationship between the two main characters. Patel is likeable and enthusiastic in his instinctive passion and understanding of his subject and Irons is very strong as his mentor, the emotionally repressed, highly intelligent Hardy. You get a sense from him of an inner life, which cannot be expressed. There are also good, often comic supporting performances from a colourfully characterized trio of racist, snobbish and jealous fellow dons, played by Kevin McNally, the late Richard Johnson and Anthony Calf, who are contemptuous of Ramanujan’s instinctive (as opposed to logical) approach to their subject. There is also an enjoyably lively cameo from Jeremy Northam as the young Bertrand Russell.

The enclosed nature of Cambridge academia is heightened by the fact that, although the period of the film covers the First World War, that traumatic event is hardly mentioned. The underlying conflict of the film is between the traditionalism of Cambridge and the unorthodox approach of the newcomer, whose final triumph is the fact that Ramanujan’s notes are now an important archive in the Wren library at Cambridge. His theorems are still being studied by contemporary mathematicians and physicists in their work on string theory, quantum gravity and black holes.

Review by Carol Allen