J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Tribeca ’16: The Man Who Knew Infinity

In retrospect, it is rather ironic some of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan best known work involved the area of number theory known as partitions. Of course, during his lifetime, the subcontinent remained whole and largely under British governance. That is why Ramanujan’s supporters eagerly encouraged his study at Cambridge, hoping his prestige would inspire Indians and generate greater national respect from the British. Ramanujan’s Cambridge years and his relationship with mentor G.H. Hardy are chronicled in Matt Brown’s The Man Who Knew Infinity (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

Ramanujan was of Brahmin caste, but he still came from mean circumstances. Despite his mind for figures, the self-taught prodigy remained unemployed, forcing him to live apart from his young arranged bride. While scuffling, Ramanujan filled several notebooks with radical, game-changing equations. However, Ramanujan was not so keen on the plug-and-chug work of proofs. They seemed so unnecessary to him, because it was all so obvious. This inevitably leads to friction with his patron, Hardy.

How can you not appreciate a film in which Ramanujan, Hardy, J.E. Littlewood, and Bertrand Russell are allotted considerable screen time? Brown’s adaptation of Robert Kanigel’s surprise hit biography manages to shoehorn a good deal of real Ramanujanalia, including the “cab number” business. Unfortunately, Brown’s narrative arc touches every predictable base, most definitely including the resistance Ramanujan faces from Hardy’s ridiculously racist colleagues. They might have felt that way, but it is hard to imagine Cambridge mathematicians expressing themselves in such crude terms, even in the 1910’s.

As you would expect from the star of The Last Airbender, Dev Patel is solid enough as the sniffling, consumptive Ramanujan. Not so surprisingly, Jeremy Irons essentially commandeers the film as Hardy. He is one of the best in the business and the prickly but sentimental-on-the-inside Hardy is totally in his wheel house. Toby Jones has some nice scenes humanizing the film as Littlewood (who is the only Cambridge faculty member we see serving during WWI). Devika Bhise is also rather touching as Ramanujan’s long-suffering wife Srimathi Janaki, but Sir Francis Spring is exactly the sort of silly upper-class buffoon cameos that are turning Stephen Fry into a caricature of himself.

Infinity is a sturdy, respectable film, but it never takes chances or ventures outside viewers’ biopic comfort zones. Even if you know nothing about Ramanujan or Hardy, you will predict every step of the film. Still, it should be happily conceded Irons rocks Hardy, especially in the third act. Recommended on balance, The Man Who Knew Infinity screens again tonight (4/17), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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