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Non-Review Review: The Man Who Knew Infinity

It takes a lot of skill to make mathematics seem beautiful. It is enough work to render those complex equations that mash together numbers and greek letters as something profound and understandable to contemporary audiences. After all, maths is static at best. When it comes to the kind of mathematical genius that inspires these sorts of biographies, the math tends towards the abstract. When The Man Who Knew Infinity works best, it manages to capture just some of the romance trapped between those braces.

Of course, there are points at which The Man Who Knew Infinity threatens to get too romantic. Writer and director Matthew Brown has an obvious (and infectious) enthusiasm for his subject, Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. The Man Who Knew Infinity works best when it expresses this affection through its leads. Jeremy Irons makes a surprisingly convincing evangelist for abstract mathematics, and Dev Patel offers utter conviction in the lead role. However, there are points at which Brown seems unwilling or unable to trust his actors or his audience.

What a nice fellow...

What a nice fellow…

In many ways, The Man Who Knew Infinity is a very conventional biography, following Srinivasa Ramanujan from his first job in an accounting firm in Madras through his time in Trinity College, Cambridge and beyond. Ramanujan is a fascinating subject. With no real formal education, Ramanujan taught himself maths at level beyond many of the top experts in the field. Ramanujan seemed to intuitively understand numbers, producing theorems that many more qualified mathematicians had spent years trying to crack.

In terms of structure, The Man Who Knew Infinity is very familiar. Ramanujan rises from a humble background and finds himself thrust into a strange new world. He is separated from his young wife and his protective mother, finding an unlikely mentor in G.H. Hardy. Studying at Cambridge during the First World War, Ramanujan finds many of his assumptions about the world turned on their head. He confronts bigotry and prejudice in all of its forms, from the stuffier members of the faculty to the conscripted soldiers forced to serve.

Hardy bucks...

Hardy bucks…

A lot of the plot beats are familiar to anybody who has watched a historical biography before. A lot of the dialogue is on the nose. Exposition is clumsily dumped in front of the audience in a way that feels arch and forced. Early in the film, Ramanujan’s wife explains, “They say you like numbers more than people.” At another point, Bertrand Russell frankly explains why the interpersonal dynamic between Hardy and Ramanujan is strained. “Well, you’re not treating him like a person,” Russell just drops awkwardly into the conversation, looking for a soundbyte.

Unfortunately, Brown doesn’t seem to trust his actors to convey (or his audience) to understand subtext. So everything is articulated in an incredibly straightforward manner. Jeremy Irons’ portrayal of G.H. Hardy makes the mathematician’s social shortcomings very obvious, but the script still builds to a big moment where Hardy confesses that he is not very good at making friends. When it comes to communicating that Ramanujan is secretly suffering tuberculosis, the movie leans so heavily on the point it is a wonder the rest of the cast does not know.

Showing his work...

Showing his work…

Brown’s lack of subtlety carries over to the rest of the production. Coby Brown’s score is very much a typical period piece biography sound track, one that would work quite well in the background. Unfortunately, Brown cranks up the soundtrack at any given opportunity. The Man Who Knew Infinity seems pathologically afraid that its audience might not be able to process a given scene without an emotional cue. As a result, the music tends to soar, occasionally threatening to drown out both the fine cast and wonderful scenery.

It seems almost like The Man Who Knew Infinity is wary of the audience’s short attention span and wandering interest. Although Ramanujan is the primary focus of the film, the script keeps cutting back to his wife and mother waiting in Madras for him to return. The plot is incredibly by-the-numbers and very generic, a traditional story of love divided by circumstances (and no small amount of meddling). While these sequences are inoffensive of themselves, they sap the momentum of the scenes focusing on Ramanujan.

Board to death...

Board to death…

Of course, it is easy to see why The Man Who Knew Infinity might feel like the audience needs emotional cues and very relatable love story. After all, advanced mathematics is rarely the stuff of great storytelling. Nevertheless, The Man Who Knew Infinity works best when it avoids these heavy-handed clichés in favour of something more sincere. What made Srinivasa Ramanujan such a visionary was the fact that he saw the world in terms that nobody else could. Trying to reduce his story to familiar beats does a disservice.

The Man Who Knew Infinity works best when it engages with Ramanujan head-on, when it embraces his obvious love of mathematics. The Man Who Knew Infinity does not have fancy graphics or visuals to sell its mathematical proofs. Instead, it relies on the cast. Dev Patel does good work as a man who seems to find the work of God buried in an abstract equation. However, it is Jeremy Irons who excels as G.H. Hardy, the man cast in the role of John the Baptist to Ramanujan’s mathematical messiah.

All going according to formula...

All going according to formula…

Irons imbues Hardy with an energy and enthusiasm buried just beneath a cynical exterior. As Hardy, Irons rhapsodises about the necessity of proof and the validity of his work. Irons gives a tremendous amount of weight and conviction to his dialogue. Although The Man Who Knew Infinity does take the time to explain one of Ramanujan’s theorems, the film doesn’t need to go into that much depth about the rest. Irons sells Hardy’s enthusiasm and conviction, to the point that it is hard not to get excited just watching him.

Compared to the heavy-handed music choices and the focus on the family drama half-way across the world, these conversations and exchanges do a much better job of explaining what Ramanujan actually did and why he was so important. It is very hard to make maths seem sexy, but – in its strongest moments – The Man Who Knew Infinity manages something even more impressive. It makes maths seem romantic. The Man Who Knew Infinity is the rare college film that actually has more heart in the scenes that actually feature a blackboard than those set outside.

His number is up...

His number is up…

To be fair, there are some problems. Due to the way that The Man Who Knew Infinity is written, and due to the casting, it occasionally feels like Ramanujan is marginalised. Patel is a solid performer, but he lacks the sheer presence of Irons and is cast in a much more restrained role. As a result, The Man Who Knew Infinity can occasionally feel a little bit too much like “the man who talks an awful lot about the man who knew infinity.” There are points at which it seems like the film’s protagonist is a man who randomly opened a letter from a genius.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is uneven and cliché at points. Buried beneath this unevenness and these clichés is a much more interesting movie. Unfortunately, it does not get out often enough.

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