Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Review: "The Man Who Knew Infinity"

The “Great Man” (or Woman) genre of cinematic biography falls into two subcategories. One is about a person of great import who is already well known to us. “The Theory of Everything,” about physicist Stephen Hawking, is a recent example of this sort.

“The Man Who Knew Everything” is the other kind: a look at a person whose accomplishments are celebrated within their field but virtually unknown to laypersons. These movies face an additional storytelling challenge, since not only do they have to satisfactorily explore that person’s life, but also justify to us why we should sit through an entire movie about them.

I feel comfortable in guessing that Srinivasa Ramanujan is not a name that falls easily from your lips. Like me, most people don’t keep lists of brilliant theoretical mathematicians memorized – let alone ones from India who died nearly a century ago.

Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) plays the gentle soul, a self-taught man with no formal education who emerged from Madras to become a Fellow at Cambridge University in England, where he collaborated with his prickly mentor, G.H. Hardy, played by Jeremy Irons.

This movie is essentially the tale of their relationship, as it very slowly evolves from teacher/student conflict to co-equal friendship based on respect. Each man has prodigious gifts and limitations, which they intermesh in a sort of combat that transforms into a dance.

This was a wise move by writer/director Matt Brown, whose only previous credit (“Ropewalk”) was 15 years ago. The audience is obviously not going to grasp even the faintest complexities of the sort of computations these men explored – prime numbers and partitions – especially since they are dealing in “pure” math without any attempt at practical applications.

Essentially, the filmmaker has to make us feel the importance of this work without understanding it. It’s a largely successful effort, as we focus on the men and not the hieroglyphic-like scratchings (to us) they make on chalkboards and in journals.

We first meet Ramanujan in his native country, where he struggles to find employment despite his brilliance. He finally attains a position of accounting clerk for a local businessman, which at least allows him to bring his new bride, Janaki (Devika Bhise), and his mother (Arundhati Nag) to come live with him. It is an arranged marriage, and the three cautiously negotiate a web of responsibilities and resentments strewn between them.

But he yearns to publish and make his theories known to the world, believing that every mathematical idea is an expression of his patron Hindu god. Eventually his work comes to the attention of Hardy, who brings him to England.

The transition is painful. Hardy, an academic with few friendships or conviviality, makes little attempt to get to know Ramanujan on a personal level. He repeatedly chides him to complete the proofs that will prove to other, less gifted mathematicians that his theories are valid. The younger man feels chastened and constrained by not being able to let his imagination run wild, and be acknowledged.

The cultural assimilation is also difficult. A strict vegetarian and devout man, Ramanujan essentially becomes a hermit who locks himself inside his room in Charnal Lane, his health becoming increasingly worse. Meanwhile, Hardy struggles to convince his hoity-toity peers to accept the prowess of his protégé.

Both actors do a wonderful job of exploring their characters, but Irons in particular manages to bring layers of nuance that perhaps are not located in any screenplay. He gives these little bobs of the head and a distracted stare that help us feel the isolation he endures, which is perhaps not so different from that experienced by his Indian student.

It’s tough to make a crusty old academic emotionally resonant, but Irons gives Hardy a sort of homely grace.

The romantic aspect of the tale is not so effective, as Ramanujan and his bride have to carry on a relationship separated by years and thousands of miles. 

Ramanujan died at the age of 32, but his fantastical theories have been almost all been proven true and, according to the film’s postscript, are still being used today to understand the behavior of black holes. “The Man Who Knew Infinity” is an engaging portrait of a hidden genius.

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