Film and TV

The Man Who Knew Infinity Proves the Movies Still Don't Know How to Depict Genius

Like The Imitation Game, The Man Who Knew Infinity is a Great Man biopic about a man most viewers have probably never heard of. Srinivasa Ramanujan was a brilliant, self-taught Indian mathematician who in his brief time on this earth made seismic contributions to his field. That he’s largely unknown in the West is a shame. So, if nothing else, Matthew Brown’s film will introduce audiences to the life of this fascinating thinker — “the most romantic figure in the recent history of mathematics,” as Ramanujan’s colleague G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) puts it in an early scene. Still, many viewers might not be able to explain just what exactly Ramanujan did, even after seeing the film. The Man Who Knew Infinity sells the romance, but not the work.

Movies about geniuses are always tough. But movies about math geniuses represent another level of difficulty entirely. In part, that’s because pure mathematics offers no tangible, material-world consequences to show, no momentous scientific experiments or life-changing works of art, just a bunch of numbers and formulas that happen to speak the secret language of the universe. Ramanujan’s work — on the infinite series for pi and the partition function and, well, a whole number of things I can’t really describe — was reportedly of immense importance. How exactly does a filmmaker represent that? How to make comprehensible something whose very nature is that the rest of us will never understand it?

The Man Who Knew Infinity handles this problem by mostly sidestepping it. (To be fair, it actually does briefly explain what the partition function is, but that’s about it.) When we first see Ramanujan (Dev Patel), he’s desperately poor and looking for work, unemployable because he has no degree. “The British think I’m a raving lunatic,” he mutters. “As do Indians,” a friend tells him. But we also get hints at his brilliance. He carries around a book of formulas, he likens himself (humbly) to Galileo. When he does finally find a job as a clerk, his boss says that he must spend evenings explaining to him the things in his notebook.

Looking to find a place where he can pursue his passion, Ramanujan writes to the great Cambridge mathematician Hardy, who at first thinks the letter is a hoax by his friend and colleague John Littlewood (Toby Jones). Soon enough, however, Hardy invites Ramanujan to Cambridge. And despite being a crusty intellectual who is awkward around people, the older Englishman shows surprising compassion and care for his younger colleague, who is unfamiliar with the highly ritualistic and fussy world of high-level British academia. Many of those around Hardy are skeptical of Ramanujan, jokingly referring to him as “Gunga Din.” But Hardy and Ramanujan also have some allies in Littlewood and Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam).

Much of the film is a typical culture-clash story, but it’s not just one of East vs. West. Rather, it’s a clash between instinct and process. Ramanujan does all his equations in his head, and is often unable or unwilling to show his work and include proofs with his formulas. For a man of process and detail like Hardy, this is almost unthinkable. “Intuition is not enough,” he tells Ramanujan. “It has to be held accountable.” But for Ramanujan, math is a matter of divine inspiration — an idea Hardy can’t quite grasp. “I’m what you’d call an atheist,” he tells Ramanujan, who replies, “No, sir, you believe in God — you just don’t think he likes you.” As in so many mainstream films, nonbelief here is depicted as a problem, a spiritual lack instead of a rational worldview; mustn’t upset the multiplex audiences, after all.

But the film doesn’t dwell on it much. Actually, it doesn’t dwell on much of anything, and that’s the problem. At one point, Hardy remarks, “I’ve come to believe that for Ramanujan, every single positive integer is one of his friends” as we see an image of Ramanujan stepping out of a door and into a whirl of snowflakes. It’s a fascinating little idea, and perhaps at the heart of this mathematician’s accomplishment, but the film never really explores it further. I kept wishing it would find a way to get inside his mind — even if just to show how complicated it is in there.

Irons brings his usual aristocratic gruffness to the part of Hardy. And Patel’s lively, impatient desperation is touching; you get a sense that this is a guy who can’t stop his mind, and who never quite feels at ease in the world of British academia. When Ramanujan, a devout Hindu and a vegetarian, accidentally eats a potato cooked in lard, Patel and Brown don’t play it for laughs, and the gravity of the moment feels sincere.

But the film’s comforting tone comes at a cost. Frustratingly beholden to the typical moves of the biopic genre, it’s filled with obligatory scenes showing our hero being misunderstood, shots of people running down courtyards triumphantly holding up handfuls of paper and tidy little lines of dialogue that quickly encapsulate the ironies of history. Somebody makes light of a news report about the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. “I doubt a dark face will ever grace these walls, let alone be made a fellow,” Ramanujan is told when he arrives at Trinity College, as he gazes at portraits of people like Isaac Newton.

All that would be harmless if it didn’t also mean that the filmmakers, by sticking to such a conventional structure, have deprived themselves of the tools to give us a real sense of Ramanujan’s achievement. This is tricky stuff, to be sure. The script drops in lines about things like “hypergeometric systems” and “the negative values of the gamma function.” Should it have to spend time trying to explain what they are? Certainly we don’t want to get bogged down in high-level mathematics, most of which we’ll never grasp, but it’s also odd to be told about somebody’s accomplishment and not what that accomplishment actually is. In the end, The Man Who Knew Infinity never allows itself to transcend the sad irony of such biopics — that people known for thinking outside the box are always given film portraits that refuse to do so. 
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