Unlikely Masterpiece: Biopic of an Indian Mathematician Is Perfectly Crafted

Dev Patel in The Man Who Knew Infinity.

Dev Patel in The Man Who Knew Infinity. (Photo: Courtesy Richard Blanshard)

A biopic about Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan might not sound like the stuff that lures long lines to the box office. But with Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) as the brilliant but poor young idealist from Madras with no formal training and no credentials who beat the odds and cracked the barriers to fame, and Jeremy Irons as the Cambridge academic who acted as his reluctant mentor, The Man Who Knew Infinity comes alive with a humanity that overcomes its Masterpiece Theater stodginess. Its craft is evident, its sincerity is admirable, and it’s the kind of movie about which you can say, “There’s not a hair out of place,” and mean it.

(3/4 stars)

Written and directed by: Matt Brown
Starring: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons and Malcolm Sinclair
Running time: 108 min.

Ramanujan had no class distinction, no formal training and no credentials, but, he had self-assurance, a genius for numbers and an ego to match. “No” did not exist in his vocabulary, so when his employer in Madras suggested he send some samples of his theories to Professor G. H. Hardy (Mr. Irons), everyone was astounded by the resulting invitation to advance his studies in England except the boy himself. Defying tradition and against his mother’s wishes, he traveled 5,100 miles to a new and daunting world on the verge of world war—when an “exotic” foreigner invading the closed ranks of old guard British society was met with particularly strong suspicion. A vegetarian, he couldn’t eat the food, and he was more comfortable sleeping on the floor. Even in suits, he insisted on wearing sandals because English shoes pinched his feet and restricted his mobility. He enraged his instructors during his five years at Trinity College because he knew more than they did, and he could solve theorems they had not even thought of yet. Humiliations, racial insults and even violence ensued.

The film is irritatingly slow, but its subject is validly and intelligently examined in the solid screenplay by Matthew Brown, who also directed. The road to posterity was paved with speed bumps. The math wizard’s proposed fellowship was denied. Meanwhile, he came down with tuberculosis. And back in India his letters pleading for his wife to join him were hidden by his resentful mother. There’s too much talk of primes, partitions and other mathematical terms, but the human elements that separate the man of humble origins from his implacable professors make Ramanujan’s need to be accepted for his mind in a hostile faraway country a universally sympathetic element in the story.

The best part of the film is the subtle blossoming of friendship between Jeremy Irons as the cold, tweedy, pipe-smoking disciplinarian who insists on form and proof and Dev Patel as the passionate, brainy but lonely man, separated from his young wife by geography and impatient with the lagging pace around him, who believes no theory has meaning unless it is inspired by God. The emotional pull is irresistible when Ramanujan is declared close to death and his teacher, a devout atheist, learns to pray. Sumptuous cinematography and a sound ensemble that includes Toby Jones, the late Richard Johnson and Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell add rich details. The film is about mathematics, but it keeps the subject matter coherent while explaining the value of Srinivasa Ramanujan’s contribution to science and why it made him a legend in his field. He influenced generations of future academics and died at 32. The Man Who Knew Infinity is quite a noble, decent and beautifully made film, if you ask me. Whether it can find its way into the hearts and minds of an audience that agrees is something that remains to be seen.