The Man Who Knew Infinity is a bore. An elegiac, droning biography of a wonderful, religious, brilliant man, who understood numbers like Jamie Oliver understands potatoes. When you can conjure seemingly random mathematical equations from thin air and transform them into proven scientific phenomenon, shouldn’t your gift be understood by the people watching you, learning about you? So much time is spent on acting in this movie that, by the end, I wanted to hand Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons Oscar statues that read “Loved your work, but your characters are blank”.
Patel plays Srinivasa Ramanujan, a poor unemployed genius from Madras who was granted the supernatural ability to conjure positive integers, collate them into partitions based on quantum physics, settle the prime differential and organise them into logical and rational formulas that could uphold the quark nebula and split subatomic particles. Okay, that’s not exactly what he did, but I had you fooled, didn’t I. That’s the problem with this movie: It never explains Ramanujan’s gift. It never tells us what he was really able to do. It’s all just numbers and equations and proofs – a whole ‘nother language we’re not invited to learn.
His gift was shared with Professor G. H. Hardy (Irons), the least racist English teacher in a college predicated on white supremacy. Hardy invites Ramanujan to Trinity College and offers to cooperate in mathematical studies and to eventually publish Ramanujan’s work. But the other professors have bigotry to upkeep! So Ramanujan is subjected to the usual racial discrimination found in the movies: Beat-ups outside the post office; name-calling; attire-mocking; scorn from a humiliated teacher, and so on.
The characters, too, are pretty standard, despite being based on non-fictional people. Toby Jones plays John Littlewood, the Cosmo Kramer type; impartial, without prejudice. The dean of the faculty is the “I’ve got my hands tied” innocent bystander. The humiliated teacher (Anthony Calf) is the constant naysayer – a crusader for intolerance. And Major MacMahon (Kevin McNally) is the Thomas figure who initially doubts but later believes. There is also room for Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam), but apparently not enough for him to do anything of use.
The Man Who Knew Infinity is directed by Matthew Brown. It’s his second feature film and his inexperience is explicit. Together with his editor, JC Bond (James’ half-cousin?), he doesn’t quite find a pace appropriate for his material. The movie glides through its scenes without engaging with them. It talks about Ramanujan’s gift but keeps the audience at arm’s length. It’s like a passionate profile project that charts the day-to-day routine of a great man. The problem here is that day-to-day routines don’t quite make enthralling cinema, unless you’re an Italian Neorealist.
The performances by Patel and Irons are top-notch, worthy of their filmographies but not of this movie. They depict very intelligent men trying to reach out for each other’s hands as the rest of white society aims to pull them apart. They like each other. They respect each other. Most crucially, they understand one another. They share genius; it’s just that Ramanujan’s brain functions on ninth gear in overdrive.
Movies like this are getting made all the time. Their stories seem premade for cinematic transition. Just recently both Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking enjoyed their own biopics. Their movies were anchored by confident direction and Oscar-worthy performances. The Man Who Knew Infinity, by comparison, is lethargic and gravely underdone. It’s almost as if the filmmakers know that Ramanujan, while incredibly intelligent, is not a historical figure many people will want to learn about, so they’ve pulled back on the throttle and neatly shifted into park.