Srinavasa Ramanujan means a lot to Indian audiences watching The Man Who Knew Infinity. Not only is the man widely regarded as one of the greatest mathematicians of all time but also his work has been standard course material for Indian kids passing out of school. So if you’re watching this movie in India you’re going to know who Ramanujan is and would expect a certain standard for a movie based on his life. And although you might be disappointed by the predictability of the movie, there’s still sufficiently enough to like about it.
Based on the 1991 biographical book by Robert Kanigel, The Man Who Knew Infinity is what you might call a ‘safe’ movie. Beautifully filmed (by Larry Smith) and scored (Coby Brown), it hits all the right emotional notes for audiences who don’t demand much and paints a fairly engaging portrait of Ramanujan. It’s incredibly sentimental in most of its scenes, but it crosses all the sappy waters without getting its feet dirty.
The story chronicles Ramanujan’s (Dev Patel) life from his humble beginnings with no formal education to a clerk working for Sir Francis Spring (Stephen Fry) before eventually leaving his wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) and country behind and embarking to Cambridge after being invited by professor GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons) who was fascinated by Ramanujan’s unlikely genius. The meat of the film covers the five year span when Ramanujan and Hardy became close friends as the former battled the World War 1 paranoia, racism and struggled to be taken seriously by the old guard of professors because he was simply smarter than all of them put together.
Patel’s casting is a bit of a turn off at first, because you expect him to render yet another shaky accent but he’s a fun Ramanujan. It remains to be seen if his persona was anything close to his real life counterpart, but his perpetually excited, nervous, and wildly buzzing character is way too endearing to dislike. He often carries an amusing look on his face every time he realizes that the people around him who are supposed to be math geniuses are struggling to keep up with his thought process. Sure, his accent is neither authentic nor believable, and a different actor might have really turned this role into a classic, but there’s no ignoring Patel’s dedication to the character.
The effortlessness in this film comes from Irons whose cricket addict, perpetually smoking, and mildly heartless mentor character is far too interesting to ignore. Math geeks who are vastly aware of Hardy and Ramanujan’s collaboration would find the camaraderie between the film’s two characters smashing fun. For a change it’s good to see a movie interested in academic sparring than buildings crumbling. The problem is Irons’ performance is so good you’re led to invest in his role far more than Ramanujan’s in his own biopic. The other niggle is the romantic subplot that plays out like a boring soap opera.
The Mathematics portrayed in the film is fairly diluted so as to make the average audience member understand its concept and also grasp how complex it is and how Ramanujan was a genius to walk through it without batting an eyelid. It would have been more fun if the film’s presentation of the Maths was like the stock market detailing in The Big Short, but this will do for now.