The brief life of Indian math prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan was so compelling that it even transcends the capable but straightforward filmmaking of “The Man Who Knew Infinity.”
It’s the terrific story (which has also inspired a novel and a play) of a young man from Madras who lacked university training but whose brilliance earned him an invitation to study with an esteemed professor at Cambridge.
The setting is around the First World War, and after a preamble in India, which establishes Ramanujan (Dev Patel) as both impoverished and married, he arrives in England — sans wife — to be mentored by crusty professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons). The Indian is a naif in the pulsing heart of British math studies — Cambridge’s Trinity College, which was Isaac Newton’s school and for a time that of Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell (who, played by Jeremy Northam, has a small role in the story).
There is some out-and-out racism on the part of the faculty, and even Hardy has some hesitations about Ramanujan, but for different reasons: He admires the young man’s theorems but insists that they need to be based on rigorous logic. This is baffling to the Indian, who asserts that his ideas are simply true, and inspired by God (not much of an argument for avowed atheist Hardy).
This is a venerable conflict in math, pitting intuitionists such as Ramanujan against formalists represented by the majority of British professors. Writer-director Matt Brown does a commendable job of presenting the issue in nontechnical terms. But the film’s emphasis is more on the personal — Ramanujan’s suffering of a severe culture shock that never really ends.
For a time, Ramanujan’s greatest champion seems to be John Littlewood (Toby Jones), one of Hardy’s math colleagues and a very good friend. The film treads very lightly around the nature of the Hardy-Littlewood relationship. Actually, the same could be said about the unmarried Hardy’s feelings for Ramanujan.
The atmosphere at Trinity, the snobbery and acrid wit and jockeying for position, is nicely captured, as is Hardy’s transformation to seeing Ramanujan as a suffering human being rather than merely a smart young chap who needs to be whipped into shape. It seems that Ramanujan isn’t the only outsider, and nicely meshing performances from Patel, Irons and Jones contribute greatly.
Again, if there’s a certain staid quality about the direction, it’s still a very affecting tale. And math buffs will appreciate the inclusion of a brief and witty anecdote they may already know involving Ramanujan and the number 1,729. Well done.
(At the Glenwood Arts, Studio 28, Tivoli, Town Center.)
‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’
Rated PG-13. Time: 1:48.