The biographies of tortured geniuses are a popular film subject, with movies like “A Beautiful Mind,” “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything” enjoying great notoriety and success.
You could almost hear filmmakers rummaging around the dustbins of history to see if there were any other brilliant scientists who overcame great personal odds just lying around.
Writer/director Matt Brown found one for “The Man Who Knew Infinity” in the interesting story of mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian without any formal education whose work gained him admittance to Cambridge University during World War I.
The movie is made competently enough, but the problem is there isn’t a whole lot at stake here and, while the cast does some above-average work, you can practically hear the gears of the screenplay whirling and clicking as it labors to try to make us care.
Ramanujan (played by Dev Patel) grew up poor in Madras, India. How did he become such a mathematical genius? No clue, because when we meet him he is a fully formed prodigy with a healthy ego, scrawling complex equations on the temple floor and filling notebooks with theories and calculations we are told are revolutionary.
Ramanujan writes letters to various professors in England, but the only one who takes notice is G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), a bristly genius in his own right who invites Ramanujan to Cambridge, where he discovers the true breadth of his abilities.
Working closely with his good friend and colleague Littlewood (Toby Jones), Hardy pushes Ramanujan into the drudgery of proofing his work so it will hold up to academic scrutiny. This is where the movie starts to drag as the difficulties pile up to an almost comedic extent for Ramanujan, as he has to deal with racism, classism, culture shock, religious persecution, separation from his young bride (Raghuvir Joshi), and illness.
Again, while Ramanujan’s perseverance is incredibly admirable, the movie does a poor job of explaining why any of it matters. Ramanujan’s work is incredibly abstract, even for mathematics, and while it pushed the limits of human comprehension, it definitely pushes the limits of audience comprehension.
In fact, just judging by this movie, Ramanujan goes through all of this just to impress some crusty old farts in robes. Not exactly on the same level of Alan Turing winning World War II.
Patel and Irons (who is in the pantheon of actors I would pay to watch read out of the phone book) do a decent job of injecting some humanity into these rigid characters with even stiffer motivations, but ultimately it’s not enough to make you care.
“The Man Who Knew Infinity” feels like it fails its subject, who I’m sure was much more interesting than the movie about him turned out to be.
“The Man Who Knew Infinity” is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and smoking.