Monday, April 18, 2016

The Man Who Knew Infinity - a fond (if masculine) memorial to an important mathematician

Srinivasa Ramanujan (played by Dev Patel) is a self taught mathematician living in Madras, India. He perceives that his discoveries are accurate and important, but without a degree no academic in India will take a risk of working with him.

But G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) in Trinity College Cambridge is already an outsider and a political radical in the hallowed environs of Trinity College Cambridge. He invites Ramanujan across to England and cajoles the instinctive prodigy to produce the proofs that will add rigour and allow his broad range of breakthroughs to be published.

“Change gentleman, it’s a wonderful thing. Embrace it!” says Hardy, not knowing that a war that will forever change the nature of his college is around the corner.
“I doubt a dark face will ever grace these walls, never mind become a fellow.”
The Man Who Knew Infinity is a story of talent mixed with academic snobbery and a huge dollop of 1920’s racism (which pretty much mirrors 2010’s racism), ill health, disrupted love and the effect of the First World War.

Ramanujan’s wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) frees her husband to travel to the UK to pursue his maths, but her mother-in-law frustrates her attempts to keep connected. Bhise – who doesn’t seem to appear in production shots for the film – makes the most of her limited scenes, displaying an on-screen sweetness and longing that pay off in her final distraught scene. Irons manages the complexity of supporting his protostar while being dismissive of his Indian clothes and customs.

Dev Patel is superb as his autodidactic character extends his independent thought from the realm of number theory to widen his worldview before succumbing to his failing body, all the while maintaining an enviable composure. It’s a long way from his previous roles in Skins, Slumdog Millionaire or The Newsroom.

The Man Who Knew Infinity falls into the category of movie that celebrates forgotten heroes. A few token mathematical concepts are explained in a 108 minute film that otherwise summarises formulae as “paintings” and mathematics as a series of “patterns”. To avoid the theorems, the audience suffer a lot of philosophical dialogue (and a few appearances from Bertrand Russell) that pads out the film but adds little to the storyline.

Released four years before the centenary of his death, The Man Who Knew Infinity is a fond memorial to the life and work of an important mathematician. It’s being screened in Moviehouse and Omnipex chains as well as Odyssey Cinemas.

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