The film remains so wedded to the “great man” biopic playbook that it never comes alive, remaining beautiful but inert.
The Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan lived a remarkable but all too short life, making major contributions to in several branches of mathematics before his untimely death at the age of 32. His story is both triumphant and tragic, in other words, making him the perfect subject for a biopic. No surprise, then, that The Man Who Knew Infinity, written and directed by Matt Brown, is an absolutely conventional biopic of the uplifting, heritage television variety.
Ramanujan was a true genius, and as such did not have an easy path through life. Born in 1887 in what is now Tamil Nadu, he had mathematical talents that were obvious from an early age. His lack of interest in studying any other subjects, though, meant that he never earned a college degree. Ramanujan continued his mathematical studies while living in extreme poverty in India, eventually attracting the attention of mathematician G.H. Hardy, who arranged for him to study at Cambridge University.
As portrayed in The Man Who Knew Infinity, Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a true believer in the purity of mathematics, meaning that if something is true, it shouldn’t matter who puts it forward. He quickly learns otherwise, running smack into the old-boy prejudices of Oxbridge, where white men are not shy about assuming their superiority over everyone else, especially dark-skinned “colonials.” He also finds his intuitive approach to mathematics is not acceptable; Hardy (Jeremy Irons), as a representative of the academic establishment, wants him to learn conventional methods and to develop proofs to back up his insights.
The prejudices freely expressed by the professors and students are bad enough, but the real nadir comes when Ramanujan is badly beaten by a group of soldiers, who call him a “freeloading little blackie” and remind him that England is their home, not his. Also problematic is the fact that Ramanujan can’t find food to meet his dietary needs (he’s a strict vegetarian, and all the food served at college seems to contain meat), and eventually finds himself hospitalized with tuberculosis. In between these tragic episodes, he performs some of the most amazing mathematics of the 20th century, leaving most of the faculty members in his wake—which, of course, makes them hate him even more.
Although The Man Who Knew Infinity is supposed to be Ramanujan’s story, the standout performance comes from Irons, whose Hardy begins as the ultimate buttoned-up Englishman and is transformed into a human being through his contact with Ramanujan. Patel, in contrast, is basically playing a version of his Best Exotic Marigold Hotel character. His Ramanujan is at once humble and arrogant, with a likeability that overcomes his tendency to be self-centered and petulant, blaming everyone else when he acts as his own worst enemy. Some inconvenient facts were omitted to make his character more audience-friendly—for instance, that he married a 10-year-old girl when he was 21—which just goes to show how carefully this film follows the biopic playbook.
Brown expends a fair amount of screen time on portraying Ramanujan as a loving husband, and displaying the suffering of his wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) due to his abandonment, which leaves her at the mercy of her gorgon-like mother-in-law (Arundhati Nag). These scenes are presumably meant to make Ramanujan more sympathetic to Western audiences, but instead act as a distraction from the main narrative of his work with Hardy at Cambridge (and, let’s face it, were it not for his mathematical work, no one would have heard of Ramanujan and this movie would not exist). The sympathy scenes also smack of Brown wanting to have his cake and eat it, too: Ramanujan knew what would happen when he went to Cambridge, but he placed his career above anything else, including his wife’s chance to have any kind of a life.
The Man Who Knew Infinity is loaded with good supporting performances, including Toby Jones as John Edensor Littlewood and Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell. It’s also a beautiful film, with fine location cinematography in England and India, and Oscar-worthy costume design by Ann Maskrey. Unfortunately, it remains so wedded to the “great man” biopic playbook that it never comes alive, remaining beautiful but inert, like a bouquet of dried flowers preserved under a bell jar rather an imperfect but living plant. | Sarah Boslaugh