Touching 'The Man Who Knew Infinity' seeks for the divinity in mathematics
Posted May 14, 2016
“THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY” — 3½ stars — Jeremy Irons, Dev Patel, Toby Jones, Stephen Fry, Jeremy Northam; PG-13 (thematic elements and smoking); in general release
Math is seldom the most popular or exciting subject in school, yet “The Man Who Knew Infinity” has turned the life story of a real-life mathematician into a moving and touching drama.
“Infinity” isn’t exactly two hours of someone writing formulas on a chalkboard. But the discipline isn’t hidden in the background either. “Infinity” is a story about love, adversity and passion, and at its heart is a gifted young man who sees God and art in the most unlikely of subjects.
The young man is Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel), an uneducated math whiz in India. We join his story in the early 20th century, shortly before the outbreak of World War I. Ramanujan’s knack for advanced mathematics is uncanny, and his work is groundbreaking, yet it seems to come from pure inspiration.
Despite his obvious talent, Ramanujan must overcome various cultural pressures to follow his passion. He struggles to earn enough money to support his young wife Janaki (Devika Bhise), and the seasoned academics he aspires to join in England are unwilling to trust the abilities of what they see as a lowly Indian.
But eventually Ramanujan secures passage to London and begins work under professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) at Trinity College. His hope is to publish his groundbreaking work and eventually bring Janaki to England, but he quickly learns that talent alone is not enough to bring success.
“Infinity’s” main conflict is built around the mentor-student relationship between Ramanujan and Hardy. The professor is a cold and logical atheist, a veteran academic who insists that his understudy provide the proof behind his work to give it accountability. But Ramanujan is young, impatient and idealistic and struggles to put in what he sees as busy work when God has given him such a natural gift.
There are other conflicts as well. Ramanujan’s mother has never supported his marriage to Janaki and interferes with their correspondence. And once war arrives in England, it casts a shadow over everything Ramanujan and his peers are trying to accomplish.
The sum of the effort is a sincere film that offers insight in surprising areas. You wouldn’t expect a film about mathematics to wrestle so transparently with the nature or existence of God, yet director Matthew Brown (who also wrote the screenplay) has brought out the divinity in Ramanujan’s story.
“Infinity” is not so much a film about good and evil as it is about flawed individuals learning to fill in the gaps of their own understanding. As it examines Ramanujan and Hardy’s relationship, “Infinity” works to reconcile the relationship of religion and science, rather than reduce it to an either-or fallacy.
Patel and Irons are well cast in their respective roles, and Toby Jones is also enjoyable as Professor Littlewood, one of Hardy’s longtime colleagues who is called away to serve in the military.
At one point, Hardy observes that Ramanujan “has been alone in (his) mind (his) whole life.” It’s a fascinating idea to think about and an effective way to describe a real-life character who struggled to combine talent and hard work into a transcendent result.
“The Man Who Knew Infinity” is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and smoking; running time: 108 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.