A life of brilliance and hardship sounds ideal for the silver screen, and mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s life was full of both. Matt Brown’s The Man Who Knew Infinity shines a light on a brilliant life - but without much flair or innovation, this dramatic biopic goes by the numbers.
In the early 20th Century, Madras native Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a genius mathematician who cannot find anyone willing to listen to his newly discovered formulae because of his poor Indian background. Struggling to find work so he can support himself and his new bride Janaki (Devika Bhise), Ramanujan writes to a number of English scholars until he gets a response from Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons). Ramanujan leaves his life behind to join Hardy in England, but runs into trouble when asked to produce proofs of the formulae that ‘come to him’. Between the new learning curve, distance from his wife, racism, and war looming, Ramanujan struggles to make the academic world listen to his genius.
The bright spot of this film is its performances, particularly from its two leads. Veteran Irons and Up-And-Comer Patel strike a brilliant dynamic as two like-minded characters who form a deep bond despite their general disinterest in socialization. Patel shines as the tortured Ramanujan, a brilliant individual destined for great things but swept up in a storm of tragic circumstances. A special mention goes to Bhise, who plays the part of the distraught devotee with a powerful, emotional air.
Unfortunately, the technique lacks in imagination, both structurally and stylistically. The plot unfolds with a simple construction wherein each scene leads into the next discretely; it’s a cold, logical structure that goes against the themes of finding beauty in the logic of math. This is a particularly frustrating issue as the first act is spent stressing how exciting and interesting the topic is, only to fall into a simple pattern so as to be easily understood. The film fails to find a unique voice, relying instead on all the tropes of a melodramatic biopic.
The story itself is quite a fascinating one, and Brown’s writing is nearly strong enough to present it. It is by no means perfect, relying on several clichés and soaked in melodrama, but it is nonetheless a life that is worth documenting. It becomes clear early on, however, that the insistence that math is not boring is an attempt to keep the audience on board. Without much in the way of eye-catching visuals or unique storytelling, the end result is a tragic biopic that will unfortunately lose the interest of many viewers due to its uninspired execution. Fans of advanced mathematics, and in particular Ramanujan himself, may be drawn to this picture, but for everyone else, this by-the-numbers piece may not scratch their melodramatic itch.
2 (out of 5)
The Man Who Knew Infinity is now playing at The Hyland Cinema.
Thomas Vickers is London-based freelance writer and film-maker.