Published May 19, 2016The Man Who Knew Infinity doesn't quite get the equation right.
Granted, it's difficult to make a good math movie. Math feels cold, indifferent and dull, so the safest route seems to be portraying the troubled genius behind those who think in numbers and zeros instead, as films like A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything all did. The Man Who Knew Infinity also tries this approach, but plays it too safe — its central protagonist is neither magnetic nor conflicted enough to carry the weight on his own. That's a critical failing in a biopic, especially one that needs to be character-centric in order to make its subject matter palatable and compelling.
The Man Who Knew Infinity is the story of relatively unknown and mostly self-taught Indian mathematics genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel), who leaves his wife and family pre-WWI to study at Cambridge University, at the urging of English mathematician G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons). Along the way, he encounters culture shock, racism and dramatic breakthroughs while forming an unlikely bond with his mentee, before the outbreak of World War I leads to tragedy. If this sounds like a setup you've seen before, you're not wrong.
Patel does a decent job of playing Ramanujan, but he doesn't have much of a character to play; the film neuters some of the more interesting facets of the real-life man — that he was from a Brahmin caste, that he married a nine-year-old at 20 (the filmic depiction of his marriage is barely developed as it is) — in favour of telling a bland, feel-good story of a man who mostly just looks pained and wide-eyed as he frantically rushes about with stacks of papers.
Brown focuses the film on the relationship between Ramanujan and Hardy. Jeremy Irons is, unsurprisingly, better than this movie deserves, perfectly embodying fussy, dowdy, inhibited British genius Hardy, who's closeted away in the dusty hallowed halls of Cambridge, sheltered in academia while the word changes around him.
Chalk it up to Brown's lack of focus on Ramanujan, but it's much more compelling to watch him struggle with the changing landscape of his field and learn to become an effective mentor who learns from and bonds with his culturally opposite mentee. It's truly a shame, too, as we've seen characters like this before — "brilliant" white men are nothing new. To not develop Ramanujan as well as Hardy seems is a wasted opportunity to create a fully fleshed out character of colour.
This movie stumbles because it sticks so closely to the biopic equation. It feels bloodless, like it decided to play rather than go for the jugular. The real-life Ramanujan was evidently impassioned and unwavering in his beliefs and theories, but it comes across in such a by-the-books way here that it's difficult to feel impassioned with him.