Bio doesn’t add up to an inspiring tale of greatness

by Dave Phillips
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AS ANY school teacher will tell you, bringing maths to the masses has never been an easy thing, but cinema has produced some valiant attempts over recent years.
Back in 2001, A Beautiful Mind chronicled the rise and mental collapse of John Nash, and in 2014 Oscar winners The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything, successfully brought to life the individuals behind the integers.
In much the same vein, The Man Who Knew Infinity aims to give the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan a big-screen treatment, and it certainly has some of the components of a Hollywood story.
Ramanujan may be an obscure figure to the general public, but among mathematicians he is recognised as a genius.
Director Matt Brown starts Ramanujan’s (Dev Patel) story as an unemployed youth in Madras in the early years of the 20th century, scrawling lengthy equations in chalk on temple floors, setting the tone for the connection between the mathematical and the divine that seems a key component to Ramanujan’s work.
Struggling to find a job in Madras, Ramanujan knows that he has an exceptional talent for numbers and just needs to find somebody in a position of power to recognise it.
The answer comes when a new employer, Sir Francis Spring (a throwaway cameo by Stephen Fry), recommends Ramanujan to some of the old boys in Cambridge.
And so we begin a tale of two worlds, as Ramanujan begins a correspondence with the celebrated English mathematician G H Hardy (Jeremy Irons).
For the most part, Matt Brown does a solid job in contrasting the dusty, convivial and spiritually literate life of people in Madras, with the emotionally stunted life of Cambridge – where the lawns may be green and lush, but nobody dares to step on the grass.
As the First World War grows on the horizon, Cambridge remains ensconced in a sense of imperial superiority, and much of the plot revolves around Ramanujan’s struggles to be academically and personally accepted within the culture he has found himself thrust into.
With Hardy in the role of a harsh but benevolent taskmaster, Ramanujan attempts to enculturate himself and get his work published.
There are a lot of story elements in here that should make The Man Who Knew Infinity a hit, but it quickly becomes evident that something essential is missing from this equation.
As well as directing, Matt Brown takes the role of screenwriter – a task that he unfortunately performs less adequately.
For the most part, The Man Who Knew Infinity unfolds without a hint of textual nuance, with conversations playing out functionally, rather than organically.
And so, a scene in which Hardy eventually breaks Ramanujan’s spirit, forcing him to conform to Cambridge standards, features the superfluous dialogue: “I see you’ve finally broken his spirit”.
For a film about numbers, it spends a lot of time spelling things out, and the end result does not make for great cinema.
Equally superfluous is the storyline of Ramanujan’s wife and mother, who are cooped up together, and at odds with one another back in Madras.
Just short of two hours, the stodgy pacing of The Man Who Knew Infinity makes it feel a lot longer.
Neither Patel nor Irons, upon whose shoulders the film rests, perform at the top of their game and the end result is a story that feels like it has much more to offer.
An attempt to shoehorn the source material into a Hollywood format leaves us consistently skimming the surface – save a single slide at the end, there is really no insight into the significance that any of Ramanujan’s work had on the field of mathematics.
An east meets west adventure that sadly stays too formulaic.
Verdict: 5/10

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