‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’ on His Own Terms

As a film critic preaching the gospel of critical thinking in a world locked into the mainstream belief that math, science and technology are the only fields of study that matter, writer-director Matt Brown’s new biopic offers a persuasive — and quite su

May 11, 2016 at 12:05 pm
click to enlarge Dev Patel as mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan
Dev Patel as mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan

As a film critic preaching the gospel of critical thinking in a world locked into the mainstream belief that math, science and technology are the only fields of study that matter, writer-director Matt Brown’s new biopic, The Man Who Knew Infinity, offers a persuasive — and quite surprising — counter-argument.

What we’re talking about isn’t exactly a full-on oppositional perspective, but a subtle shift toward an appreciation of the softer side of the focus on absolutes. The film, based on a true story, also requires us to continue an ongoing analysis of how we approach the stories of others.

Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel), a devout man of faith, grew up poor in Madras, India, but he “knew” numbers; his mind crunched them with the precision of a supercomputer, thanks in large part to the fact that he could also intuit formulae that reduced the vast forest of possibilities into immense but conceivable trees.

Ramanujan’s intense period of solo study began more than a century ago, around 1914, long before the dawn of our technological age. He lived and breathed a world that was largely invisible to everyone around him, hiding away in his temple, alternately praying and scribbling indecipherable numeric glyphs on stone floors, then transcribing them into journals, densely packing as much as possible onto the few precious pages he could afford.

Compounding things, as a poor, uneducated man of his day, Ramanujan found it virtually impossible to find work. No one wanted to hire a man with no formal training, even one with notebooks containing the wonders of a still-unknown universe.

When, with great reluctance, Sir Francis Spring (Stephen Fry) deigned to bring him on as a clerk, all the Englishman saw was an arrogant and dusty brown man who would probably never amount to more than a common laborer.

That is a fascinating aspect of The Man Who Knew Infinity. White men, the gatekeepers of fact, truth and all of the great ideals of philosophy and science, had seemingly stopped gazing at the heavens and dreaming beyond what they could conceive, while Ramanujan was in touch with the mystery of beauty and the feelings it could inspire.

By 1920, Ramanujan had made his way to Cambridge to begin working under the tutelage of Professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), an eccentric fellow known for bucking the dry institutional façade that dominated the academic halls, but Hardy proved to be just as myopic when it came to the study of mathematics. While he saw enormous potential in Ramanujan’s raw journals, he narrow-mindedly honed in on an adherence to proofs, forcing Ramanujan to detail each and every step in the process — in essence taming the wild intuitive leaps that Ramanujan’s beautiful mind could take in pursuit of an end result.

That rigidity, in the face of such genius, smacks of a desire to break and conform Ramanujan, to remake him in the image of a white man, the accepted authority. There is no effort to get to know him on his own terms, to dare to run alongside him (as much as anyone could).

Late in the film, Hardy, an avowed atheist, does ask Ramanujan how he arrives at his formulae and he explains that, for him, the equations are like the thoughts of God. A deeply complex expression, a true marriage of science and belief, but obviously difficult for a devout academic to embrace, right?

The film, like all biopics about people outside the mainstream perspective, can only see Ramanujan through a familiar lens. Hardy introduces us to him at the outset, and we hear Hardy’s voice at the end, not so much recalling Ramanujan, but rather highlighting his limited experiences with the man. Hardy never truly comes to know him at all, not the man he was before he arrived at Cambridge nor anything about his family in Madras. Hardy never sees Ramanujan’s painfully obvious failing health, even as Ramanujan wastes away right before him.

Srinivasa Ramanujan was a giant thinker and a bridge spanning and linking numerous realms of thought and societal awareness. He was young, gifted and brown, and his critical and creative contributions lent brilliant color to our conception of the world. (Opens Friday at Mariemont Theatre) (PG-13) Grade: B