Around the time that “Good Will Hunting” came out, I had occasion to chat with a Nobel Prize-winning scientist about the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who is referenced in that film. The scientist asked me why no one had ever tried to make a movie about Ramanujan, who grew up poor in Madras, India, and died at age 32 in 1920 after having attended the University of Cambridge and revolutionized mathematical thought with theorems that still have resonance today.
I wonder what that scientist would have made of writer-director Matthew Brown’s “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” starring Dev Patel as Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons as his mentor, British mathematician G.H. Hardy. Ramanujan’s life is such a gold mine of intellectual and cultural complexity that this well-intentioned but tepid movie, loosely adapted from the eponymous 1991 Robert Kanigel biography, is doubly disappointing. It’s a conventional movie about a most unconventional subject. (A novel, an Indian biopic, and multiple plays about Ramanujan have previously appeared.)
Ramanujan was born into a poor Brahmin family and showed an extraordinary aptitude for mathematics early on, making intuitive intellectual leaps for which he often only later supplied proofs. Toiling in a series of accounting jobs, he worked feverishly on his theorems and managed to get them to Hardy, the famed University of Cambridge professor who alone among his colleagues recognized Ramanujan’s genius from the start and, in 1914, brought him to Trinity College.
The film’s core is the deep friendship that developed between Hardy, the tweedy Oxbridge atheist, and his devoutly religious disciple, who believed that his equations expressed thoughts from God. But this core is eclipsed by Brown’s gentlemanly, once-over-lightly approach. Patel, best known from “Slumdog Millionaire,” is a frisky, engaging performer, but he never convinces as someone for whom numbers were sacred. Too much is made of Ramanujan’s puppyish love for the wife he left behind in India (as if the film needed a romantic angle to snare us). And the trajectory of his tragic life, even if one is initially unfamiliar with it, is all too predictable long before he starts having “Camille”-style coughing fits.
Irons gives a deft performance as a man who is both entranced and flummoxed by his disciple, but the role itself is in most ways skimpily conceived. Hardy’s homosexuality, for one thing, is never really touched upon, as if that would somehow taint the proceedings. His successful campaign, in the face of much institutional bigotry, to have Ramanujan elected the first Indian fellow at Trinity lacks suspense.
Movies about aggrieved math prodigies have become almost a subgenre: “A Beautiful Mind” (John Nash), “The Theory of Everything” (Stephen Hawking), and “The Imitation Game” (Alan Turing) are the most obvious recent examples. Like those films, “The Man Who Knew Infinity” plays down the nuts and bolts of what these men actually achieved in favor of a more generalized, nonscientific assessment rooted in the characters’ afflictions. I think the success of the PBS “Cosmos” series and much else proves that audiences may be more receptive to hard science than Hollywood allows for.
Yes, the core of “The Man Who Knew Infinity” is the friendship between Ramanujan and Hardy. But that friendship was founded on the sheer ecstasy of mathematical deduction. A fuller movie would have given us a greater taste of that ecstasy. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and smoking.)