The Man Who Knew Infinity

 

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Dev Patel stars as Srinivasa Ramanujan, an impoverished clerk from Madras who not only managed to find his way to Cambridge, but to shake up the world of mathematics.

 
Man Who Knew Infinity, The

Magic numbers: Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel

 

Infinity is not an easy concept to grasp. However, a poor unemployed clerk in 1913 Madras not only grappled with the terms of infinite sequences but was able to calculate enormously complex theories in his head. Eventually, he led the field in mathematical analysis, number theory, continued fractions and, perhaps most impressively of all, he managed to compute the number of partitions of an integer. And that’s something. If all this sounds rather dry and un-cinematic, Matthew Brown’s touching and captivating drama begs to differ. It’s actually a truism that films about mathematical geniuses – and maths, in general – seem to end up being rather good. Think no further than The Imitation Game, Good Will Hunting, A Beautiful Mind, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and even The Theory of Everything. Maybe it’s because a genius is invariably a person who fails to fit the accepted mould and that, in itself, makes for engrossing drama.

 

Here, Dev Patel plays the legendary Srinivasa Ramanujan and gives the best performance of his career. Gone are his tics and the gauche gusto, replaced instead with a quiet melancholy and a defining belief in his own ability. When, in Madras, Ramanujan does finally land a job as an accountant for an English company (lorded over by a contemptuous Stephen Fry), he finds it quicker to tally the figures in his head than to use an abacus. Even so, it is recommended that he pretend to use the counting frame – if only to placate the powers-that-be.

 

After sending some of his theorems to the English mathematician G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) at Cambridge, he was denounced as a fraud, because the depth of his calculations was impossible to believe. However, further correspondence and examination of Ramanujan’s work convinced Hardy that the clerk from Madras was the real thing. With an invitation to study at Trinity College, Ramanujan then had to reconcile his trip overseas with his wife and mother who, both being Brahmin, looked down on foreign travel. Eventually his wife conceded to his greater plan and so Ramanujan set off to England to shake up the world of mathematics.

 

It might have been easy to paint Ramanujan as a humble underdog who overturns the Establishment, but Matthew Brown’s screenplay is, like Ramanujan’s theorems, a more complex animal. Ramanujan’s self-belief bordered on the arrogant and it’s up to Hardy to knock his student down a peg or two while getting him to prove his hypotheses. Thus, a student-mentor kinship evolves, in which both participants find a way to learn from each other.

After his wasted turns in High-Rise and Batman v Superman, Jeremy Irons returns to top form as the eccentric, pipe-puffing Hardy and channels the professor’s bluster and human failings with agreeable aplomb. There’s also good support from Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell and Toby Jones as the somewhat more sympathetic number cruncher John Edensor Littlewood. The setting of Trinity College itself is never less than beguiling to the eye, while the mystery of maths is made genuinely enthralling. To wit, Ramanujan explains to his young wife (the exceptionally beautiful Devika Bhise) that maths “is like a painting with colours you can’t see.” But it’s the shifting rapport between Hardy and Ramanujan that fuels the emotional motor of the film. These are both men incapacitated as human beings but desperate to find the truth in their scientific art, whose respective obsessions finally open up a channel of empathy between them. It’s another extraordinary story of how a flawed underdog – think Alan Turing in The Imitation Game – overcame insurmountable odds to make their mark on the world.

  

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Devika Bhise, Stephen Fry, Toby Jones, Jeremy Northam, Kevin McNally, Enzo Cilenti, Richard Johnson, Anthony Calf, Malcolm Sinclair.

 

Dir Matthew Brown, Pro Edward R. Pressman, Jim Young and Joe Thomas, Screenplay Matthew Brown, Ph Larry Smith, Pro Des Rajeevan Nambiar, Ed J.C. Bond, Music Coby Brown, Costumes Ann Maskrey.

 

Pressman Film/ Xeitgeist Entertainment Group/Cayenne Pepper Productions-Warner Brothers.

108 mins. UK. 2015. Rel: 8 April 2016. Cert. 12A.