The Man Who Knew Infinity is a conventional biopic that takes some shots at the British caste system in telling the story of a radical Indian maths genius mentored at Cambridge.
Ramanujan is hardly a household name, but the impression given by this biopic is that he was an Indian maths whiz without a formal education whose genius approached Einstein’s. Moving from an impoverished life in India to the alien landscape of academe at Cambridge, he lit up the world of advanced mathematics in the early 20th century, making some major breakthroughs previously considered impossible before TB cut his career and life short at 32.
The film hurries through Ramanujan’s (Dev Patel) life as a young man in Madras. The main dramatic purpose of this intro section is to set up a love interest (his beautiful wife) and a possessive mother complication. This forms the basis for a clichéd and very secondary backstory to the main action, which is initiated when Ramanujan receives an offer of mentorship at Cambridge.
Clutching a stack of notebooks filled with formulae he claims to have received through the grace of an Indian deity, he arrives at Cambridge as an ingénue convinced of the greatness of his work. He soon learns that he must pay his dues and undertake some onerous formal learning to enable him to provide verifiable and rigorous proofs of his divinely-sourced mathematical revelations.
Further, Cambridge proves to be a microcosm of a society just as mired in an appalling caste system as that Ramanujan has left behind in India. His disillusionment and struggle against racism and bigotry within the hallowed halls peaks when WW1 erupts and the campus is turned over to the war effort. At one stage he is physically attacked by Brit soldiers resentful that he is not obligated to serve.
The main dramatic focus, however, is the relationship between Ramanujan and his mentor, Professor G.H. Hardy (played with sensitivity and authority by Jeremy Irons). With nothing in common culturally, they meet over shared intellectual ground, and gradually develop a friendship that changes their lives. The emotional stakes rise when R is diagnosed with terminal TB.
Irons is the standout performer as the crusty middle-aged academic immersed in an all-consuming career that demands he play the political games required of Cambridge Fellows, many of whom he regards, rightly, as “pompous bores.” Their bigotry towards his brilliantly gifted mentee forces him to confront some uncomfortable truths about the nature of the institution to which he has devoted his life, while his friendship with Ramanujan restores his withered humanity. Indeed, the professor’s progress as a character is the most involving and moving aspect of the film.
In adhering to conventional form, the filmmakers have portrayed an extraordinary mathematical radical in a respectful but distinctly ordinary and rather plodding manner. Nevertheless, Ramanujan’s story deserves to be brought to notice, and this is an interesting enough account even if it doesn’t reach any great dramatic heights.
Movie website: https://www.warnerbros.co.uk/movies/the-man-who-knew-infinity
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