Video Treasure: The Man Who Knew Infinity

Directed by Matthew Brown
Warner Brothers, 108 minutes, PG-13 (racism themes)

I’m one of the most right-brained people on the planet, so I surprised myself by viewing two films about math in the same week: Hidden Figures and The Man Who Knew Infinity. How to say this? The first is more important sociologically, but the second is a better film, although not many people saw it when it was in theaters.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is a biopic about Srinivasa Ramanunjan (1887-1920), whose brief, brilliant career inclines one to believe that sometimes nature is way more important than nurture. He grew up in Madras, India; was modestly educated; dutifully submitted to an arranged marriage to a ten-year-old girl in 1909; and toiled in low-level accounting posts before attracting minor attention at home. Hardly the sort one would consider Cambridge material at a time in which the British raj was intact and most Brits considered Indians racially inferior “wogs.” But Ramanujan had an inexplicable gift for computation and he filled notebooks like da Vinci on amphetamine. His work was so  advanced that many thought him a charlatan, but Trinity College Fellow G. H. Hardy was intrigued enough to test that theory.

The Man Who Knew Infinity concentrates on the professional relationship between the intuitive and sensitive Ramanujan (Dev Patel) and his hard taskmaster mentor Hardy (Jeremy Irons). To call the two opposites hardly does the description justice; Hardy was such a cold fish that he had colleagues, but no lovers, no passion other than work and cricket, and even his few “friends” such as John Enensor Littlewood (Toby Jones) had to resilient to insult or be able to parry like Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam). Cambridge was Hardy’s element and Ramanujan’s isolation ward.  Call it a relationship between fire and ice….   

The film follows Ramanujan’s need to prove himself during his time at Cambridge (1914-19), both metaphorically and literally. Like Hidden Figures, it’s also about overt and covert racism. There were few dark faces at Trinity College and fewer still white ones willing to believe that an Indian could possess superior intellect. Racial slurs were the order of the day and even the mildest of questions could be construed as insolence. Nor did it occur to the bright white minds of Cambridge that a Hindu man might not eat meat or find chapel edifying—or that perhaps he might miss his wife or his native land. Ramanujan’s problem with Hardy was that he intuited answers but seldom process. He was a “pure” mathematician in the strictest sense—one who saw his equations as gifts from his god, believed them to be true, and saw no need to question them, even when they were demonstrably wrong. In Hardy’s West, though, a math equation without corresponding proofs gains labels such as conjecture, speculation, and unsound reasoning. So can fire and ice learn to make water? Can one man become more earthly and the other more sensitive? Can either convince others to drink? Brown is unsparing in plumbing the depths of British xenophobia and how it intensified once the Great War (World War I) erupted. A world in which logic is kicked in face by the boots of unreason ought to strike you as chillingly familiar.

Ramanujan was a brilliant star that burned out too soon, which makes The Man Who Knew Infinity equal parts inspirational, triumphant, and tragic. Brown’s ability to let us see the last of these is one of the things that makes this a better film than Hidden Figures. Excellent performances from Patel, Irons, Jones, and Northam move the narrative crisply and make it compelling for right-brained people like me. Ramanujan’s work was pathbreaking in fields such as partitions, number sequences, the properties of fractions, and a whole host of other things I can’t pretend to understand. In all, he produced more than 3,900 equations and results—almost all of them correct. Ramanujan possessed true genius, though it remains mysterious as to how it was acquired. But here’s a result to consider: this is a really good film. As proof, I offer myself—as unlikely candidate to get excited about a math film as you can possibly imagine. Give this one a try; I think you’ll find a winning equation.

Rob Weir      

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