“Patel plus Irons equals a gem in ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’”
Written/directed by: Matt Brown
Starring: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Toby Jones, Devika Bhise
“The Man Who Knew Infinity” (2016) – Look into any high school science curriculum, and most assuredly, Sir Isaac Newton and his Law of Universal Gravitation are mentioned. Newton – born in 1642 and a Trinity College alumnus – “discovered” gravity when an apple allegedly fell from a tree and hit him on the head. “Schoolhouse Rock!”, the beloved animated series, even remarks on Newton and his famous red fruit, but another off-the-charts brilliant mathematician - who you probably have never heard of – also attended Trinity College, and his story is infinitely intriguing as well.
Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) worked as a modest clerk in Madras, India, but through a well-placed letter to Trinity’s G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), Ramanujan found a place to potentially publish his work and study with his new English mentor. In 1914, his journey to one of England’s most prominent universities was literally and figuratively arduous, and writer/director Matt Brown’s biopic effectively and painfully captures Ramanujan’s challenges in his new British surroundings.
After traveling 6,000 miles and leaving his new wife, Janaki (Devika Bhise), behind, Ramanujan was also fiercely challenged by institutional racism in many corners of Cambridge. Whether an instructor declaring that Ramanujan does not belong at Trinity or a group of WWI veterans beating him and calling him names, India’s warm weather and Janaki’s even brighter smile might as well be 6 million miles away. In addition, Brown smartly captures one of the most affecting sequences in the picture when Ramanujan stumbles into a room with life-sized statues and stained glass windows, and all of the faces in the artwork are a colorless white.
Fortunately, Hardy, professor Littlewood (Toby Jones) and a few faculty members provide some sanctuary for him and do not hold bigoted feelings, as they embrace his genius and accept him like any other student. On the other hand, the relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan is contentious in a different way. While this prodigy can scribe absurdly implausible calculations and theories which could unlock answers to the impossible, Hardy repeatedly demands proof of the formulas because “intuition has to be held accountable” in order for Ramanujan’s work to be widely accepted.
This sometimes volatile teacher/student dynamic combusts at times and slow burns in others, and Irons pulls his highly-trained thespian levers to capture Hardy’s marvel and admiration for Ramanujan while also conveying his character’s inherent limitations of compassion and open communication. Hardy deeply cares about Ramanujan but does not know how to express it. Although Irons makes it awfully difficult to find fault with Hardy, because at the turn of the 20th Century, how many middle-aged men knew how to express warmth or feelings? At the same time, Patel emotionally projects Ramanujan’s mental and physical churn, but, like Hardy, his character does not always communicate the way he should.
Now, no matter how an audience member feels about math, Brown presents the material in a curious way for even the most arithmetic-challenged layman. We do not visually see Ramanujan’s calculations dance on the screen, while he processes his thoughts, like John Nash (Russell Crowe) in “A Beautiful Mind” (2001). Rather he passionately states his ideas or presents pages of handwritten equations, and the screenplay allows Hardy to judge their validity for us. Since the frequent exchanges of (and how to package) these ideas reside with the two leads, the audience does not need to struggle with comprehending the meaning or interpreting the exceptional concepts. Rather, the picture thankfully allows us to simply and easily absorb the dynamics between two fascinating characters and their relationship, and Patel and Irons rise to the task in grand fashion.
Trinity College is certainly fashionable and elegant, and Brown cinematically captures a worldly environment where cultured men proudly walk in green courtyards and sit on rich mahogany, but cigar-smoking elders broker backroom deals too. It is far away from Ramanujan’s humble beginnings and his caring wife, but Trinity College is a place where he makes history. The kind of history that you discover in textbooks. (3.5/4 stars)