A mannered and milquetoast period biopic about the short life of mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, “The Man Who Knew Infinity” opens with a Bertrand Russell quote that conveniently frames its failings: “Mathematics, rightly viewed, posses not only truth but supreme beauty.” Writer-director Matthew Brown (“Ropewalk”) has made a handsome and well-meaning testament to a rare man, but his film is all truth and no beauty (and that truth has been strained through the filter of historical revisionism and narrative convenience).
Essentially “The Theory of Everything” meets “Good Will Hunting” with a hard colonialist twist, “The Man Who Knew Infinity” begins in 1920, where snooty British academic G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons, who’s a treat to watch even on auto-pilot) is waxing nostalgic about “the most romantic figure in the recent history of mathematics.” He’s referring, of course, to Ramanujan (Dev Patel, natch), whom we meet as a 25-year-old shipping clerk in his hometown of Madras circa 1914. Erratic, compulsive and completely consumed by the equations that come to him like visions from God, the self-taught savant is terrible at his job and even worse at his marriage.
Ramanujan’s passion for numbers is clear — he writes equations with the fever of someone penning letters to a distant love, eventually gathering the courage to send his work to Hardy and his colleagues at Trinity College. Hardy is smitten, and perhaps more than a little flummoxed, by what this stranger from the subcontinent has written him, and invites the unassuming autodidact up to Cambridge. Ramanujan accepts the offer, sorrowfully parting from his wife and exchanging the comforts of his home for the dreary campus of Trinity College, where war is on the horizon, nationalism is running high and racism is all the rage.
That Ramanujan has a beautiful mind is easy for Hardy to identify, but almost impossible for him to prove — “The Man Who Knew Infinity” faces the same problem. As moviegoers have long since learned the hard way, math is difficult to visualize cinematically, and Brown falls into all of the classic traps. Ramanujan’s passion for numbers is clear — he writes equations with the fever of someone penning letters to a distant love — but that passion is never made accessible to viewers. There are dozens of shots of Ramanujan furiously scribbling in his notebook, and precious few that convey what he’s working towards, or what success might look like for him. It’s one thing to be kept at a remove that allows us to appreciate how someone could be cut off by their genius, but it’s deeply enervating not to understand even the first thing about what that genius might entail. The London Mathematical Society has argued that the film “outshines ‘Good Will Hunting’ in almost every way,” but the arithmetic is only allowed to because Brown never bends it to dramatic effect.
Brown keeps Ramanujan at just enough of a distance that we can tell he’s a fascinating character, but not close enough that we ever truly connect with the reasons why. The film is full of cute platitudes that queue an emotional response to his story (“There are no proofs that can determine matters of the heart”), but there’s little here to anchor those flutters of sentimentality to anything real. By this point in his career, Patel has perfected this wide-eyed fish out of water routine, and it’s a credit to his natural charisma that his latest performance is nearly as compelling as his first. Ramanujan is frustrated at being forced to prove that which he already knows to be true — he would rather explore those truths deeper than spend his life convincing other, less capable minds that he had found them in the first place — and Patel strikes just the right note between honesty and impatience.
But the actor’s inherent watchability isn’t enough to sustain interest when the movie shifts towards the theological in its second half and the spirited conversations between Ramanujan and Hardy begin to center around their difference of opinion regarding the divine. Hardy is a devout atheist, and he doesn’t believe in anything he can’t prove (“I don’t believe in anything I can’t prove,” he barks, epitomizing a script that shares a mathematician’s need to show its work). Ramanujan, on the other hand, sees numbers as a gateway to the divine. His faith is less rooted in a particular religious framework than it is in the logic of a self-invented genius, who sees numbers as a trail of breadcrumbs that God left for him alone to follow.
Again, it’s potentially fascinating, but Brown stands outside of it with Victorian civility. In order to compensate for his lack of access, he allows the movie to flitter in all directions, following a kindly professor (the great Toby Jones) as he trudges off to war, or checking in on Ramanujan’s bride back at home, pining for the husband she was wed to against her will. The more extraordinary Ramanujan’s life becomes, the more such a conventional and genteel rendering of it begins to feel inherently limited — Ramanujan may have known infinity, but we don’t even get a glimpse of it.
“The Man Who Knew Infinity” is now playing in theaters.