Movie review: ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’ is a by-the-numbers biopic
“The Man Who Knew Infinity” tells the fictionalized true story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant unschooled mathematician whose work changed the field. Let me stop you before you say “A Beautiful Mind” or “The Imitation Game.” This biopic, from writer-director Matthew Brown, is a dutiful effort that never quite adds up to those vastly superior efforts.
Brown takes a conventional hit-the-high-note approach in telling the story of an unlikely pairing between Ramanujan (Dev Patel, “Slumdog Millionaire”) and an eccentric professor (Jeremy Irons, “Batman v. Superman”) at Britain’s prestigious Trinity College. Ramanujan rises from the slums of Madras, India, to travel 6,000 miles by boat to Cambridge, England, where he faces rampant prejudices, rigid academics, culture clashes and other obstacles, including glaring differences in thought and approach from his mentor, G.H. Hardy (Irons). Soon, though, the men find common ground in their love of numbers and the “truth and beauty of mathematics.”
The movie opens in 1913, with world war imminent. Ramanujan leaves his new wife (Devika Bhise) and mother behind to pursue his mathematical dreams. The pull from home and the political unrest in England are shown in a way that feels tacked on. Nonetheless, the movie is watchable because of the fine performances from Irons, an Academy Award-winner for “Reversal of Fortune,” and the always-terrific Patel (“The Exotic Marigold Hotel”). The movie doesn’t have enough scenes of them squaring off mano a mano over proofs or the existence of God.
The writer-director is too distracted making sure we fully understand Ramanujan’s plight rather than this interesting cross-cultural friendship and the monumental breakthroughs of their work on number theory, infinite series and continued fractions. The full effect is never really explained. Ramanujan’s pure genius, we’re told, is as big as Newton’s. But the amount of humanity he’s able to draw out of the staunch atheist Hardy is also an achievement, especially when one of them becomes ill. The movie is infinitely better when Irons and Patel share the screen, even if Brown predictability lets their relationship evolve from prickly to warm and fuzzy.
The transformation feels forced.
In supporting roles, the cherubic Toby Jones as a renowned British mathematician with a sense of humor (who knew?), and Stephen Fry as Sir Francis Spring, one of Ramanujan’s earliest advocates, add up to a winning equation.
It’s too bad that Brown wasn’t able to do more with the material. Working both as the writer and director on his first film since 2000’s “Ropewalk,” Brown may have simply stretched himself too thin, unable to produce more than a by-the-numbers biopic about a math genius who was a true original.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“The Man Who Knew Infinity”
Cast: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons and Devika Bhise.
(PG-13 for some thematic elements and smoking.)