“THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY” My rating: B-
108 minutes | MPAA rating: R
Despite the title, “The Man Who Knew Infinity” is not a science fiction yarn…although its real-life hero was probably regarded by his contemporaries as an extraterrestrial or a visitor from the future.
Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) is, nearly a century after his death, still regarded as one of the most important mathematicians of all time. He appears to have been a natural — he never received any formal training.
Writer/director Matt Brown’s biopic follows Ramanujan (Dev Patel) from an impoverished childhood and early marriage in India to the heights of mathematical study at Trinity College, Cambridge. The bulk of the film takes place in pre-World War I England where the young savant becomes a protege of math great G.H. Hardy — although after a few weeks one could ask who exactly is teaching whom.
Granted, few moviegoers regard math as a scintillating subject for dramatic exploration. Indeed, while “The Man Who Knew Infinity” (the title refers to Ramanujan’s ability to visualize numbers so large they put the rest of us into meltdown) cannot escape talk about primes, theta functions, divergent series and whatnot, the film’s dramatic core rests on more recognizable issues.
Like racism. For all his genius, Ramanujan was regarded by many on the Cambridge faculty as a mere “wog.” The prevailing view was that as such he must have stolen his results from brighter (i.e., whiter) minds. Even Hardy begins their relationship with a rather patronizing attitude. At times the Indian guest faces physical violence.
Not to mention the isolation of being one of the few Indians on campus. A strict vegetarian, Ramanujan discovered to his dismay that in England even vegetables are cooked in lard; the combination of a poor diet and a miserable English winter probably contributed to his early death.