Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 110 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 12+. This biopic of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan includes some infrequent cursing, a variety of slurs against Indian people, one kiss in a dream sequence, some shirtless men, some familial drama between an emotionally abusive mother in law and her daughter in law, scenes set in makeshift war-time hospitals with injured soldiers, some young men die fighting off-screen in World War I, and the protagonist’s own debilitating sickness, suicide attempt, and eventual death, including a scene where a fever dream makes him hallucinate mathematical equations moving underneath his skin.
The conventional biopic ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’ focuses less on its protagonist, the groundbreaking Indian mathematician S. Ramanujan, than on the British men who worked with him. This dilution of Ramanujan’s own story fails him.
By Roxana Hadadi
At a very basic level, you could consider “The Man Who Knew Infinity” a historically accurate, international version of 1997’s Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting.” Both films are about the relationships between informally trained young men excellent in math and their inflexible mentors, and both tackle the difference between intuition and evidence in learned settings. But “Good Will Hunting” focused almost exclusively on the fictional Will Hunting, while “The Man Who Knew Infinity” doesn’t give real-life mathematician S. Ramanujan nearly the same attention.
Why not? It’s hard to say, although the easy answer would of course be “colonialism.” “The Man Who Knew Infinity” defers to the perspective of S. Ramanujan’s professor, G. H. Hardy, giving him opportunities for narration, for the best dialogue, and for moving the storyline forward. It’s problematic that a movie that tackles head-on how S. Ramanujan was subjugated against as an Indian man in the United Kingdom still doesn’t really let him tell his own story. He frustratingly feels like a supporting player in a movie about his own life.
“The Man Who Knew Infinity,” which describes itself as “based on true events,” begins with Hardy at the legendary Trinity College in 1920 (Jeremy Irons, of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”), musing that “I suppose it is always a little difficult for an Indian and an Englishman to understand each other properly.” It then jumps back in time to Madras, India, in 1914, where the young man Ramanujan (Dev Patel, of “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”), is struggling to find a job. Although he’s exceptional in math, he isn’t formally educated, and it’s difficult—nearly impossible—to gain employment without a degree.
Making things worse is that he’s married to a young woman, Janaki (Devika Bhise), whom he barely seems to know and whom is obviously hated by his mother; the tension between the two of them is adding even more stress to his life. (This is the film’s worst storyline and its most historically inaccurate.) “I’m doomed, like Galileo,” he frets, but eventually, Ramanujan obtains employment as an accounting clerk, working on his mathematical observations and investigations in his spare time.
But scribbling mathematical equations and theories in his notebooks and on the floor of his temple isn’t going to be enough, so when he finally hears back from an English professor interested in his work—Hardy—he decides to make the trek to Trinity College. His hope of getting published is paramount, and it moves him 6,000 miles to a country that has made an essential part of its empire oppressing his people.
The cultural disconnect, expectedly, starts early. Hardy may say things like “I want everything to be to your advantage so we can be as productive as possible,” but he doesn’t ask about Ramanujan’s life, doesn’t realize that he’s vegetarian, thinks nothing of how the fellow university professors mock use him. Instead, he keeps pressing Ramanujan for proofs of his work, discounting his creativity. “Intuition is not enough, it has to be held accountable,” he lectures. Ramanujan may “dance with numbers to infinity,” but if he can’t prove it, his work can’t move forward.
What hurts “The Man Who Knew Infinity” the most is, excusing the pun, its by-the-numbers approach to biographical storytelling, and how much of Ramanujan’s story is in Hardy’s hands. He dictates what Ramanujan works on at Trinity, he fails to see Ramanujan’s illness, he makes the case late in the film for the college to recognize Ramanujan’s work—he does practically everything, leaving Ramanujan himself feeling like a footnote. Irons and Patel handle the material they’re given, but their relationship feels consistently imbalanced, so much so that “The Man Who Knew Infinity” ultimately feels mediocre.
The best parts of the film play on the tension between the men, but are sadly infrequent. When the dialogue highlights Hardy’s casual racism, like when he sees Ramanujan in his native garb and tells him “Go home and get properly addressed,” or Ramanujan’s snappiness (his response of “No, but you expect me to speak English” when Hardy notes that he “wouldn’t expect” Trinity College professors to speak Tamil), it’s brisk and smart. Also of note are the discussions between Ramanujan and Hardy about religion; the former’s devoutness and the latter’s atheism contrast as well as their approaches to math.
That’s only a couple of scenes, though, and only moments of greatness are not enough to elevate the average storytelling of the disappointingly uneven “The Man Who Knew Infinity.”
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