Any movie that begins by declaring its aim to tell the true story of “the most romantic figure in the recent history of mathematics” has set for itself one hell of a challenge.
In The Man Who Knew Infinity we hear many declarations about the inherent truth and beauty to be found in advanced equations — even that all the numbers, letters, and symbols we see scrawled on chalkboards and scraps of paper reveal the “thoughts of God.” Writer-director Matt Brown wants us to be inspired by the obsessive, passionate genius for math displayed by Ramanujan (Dev Patel), but he never finds a way to cinematically communicate what made this man’s ideas so special. We get to see smart people reacting as if they are, and that’s supposed to be good enough.
There’s no denying the unique circumstances of Ramanujan’s life. From Madras in southern India, he possessed no university degrees, and yet worked out (we’re told) revolutionary new formulas that even today help reveal patterns in our own natural world. Just as World War I is beginning, in 1914, a kind boss helps him write to a Cambridge fellow, G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), in the hopes he might get his worked published.
What follows will undoubtedly remind viewers of the storyline of Good Will Hunting (and a reference to Ramanujan is made in that 1997 film). Impressed by Ramanujan’s work, Hardy brings him to Cambridge to study under his tutelage. The small conflicts between them arise because Ramanujan, self-taught and a man of religious devotion, has always worked on his own intuition — he just knows his formulas are right. That’s not good enough for Hardy, an atheist, who attempts to impart to Ramanujan the importance of proving his claims.
And so we get the man of science/man of faith dichotomy we’ve seen in countless stories before. The Man Who Knew Infinity doesn’t mine any new territory on that front, despite putting the discussion front and center. You probably won’t be shocked — nor is it a spoiler — when I tell you that Ramanujan and Hardy each come to learn a little something from each other.
I wish instead that Brown had found some innovative way to help the audience to learn a little something exciting about math.