Philip Raby reviews The Man Who Knew Infinity.
What do Matt Damon, Russell Crowe, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, Asa Butterfield and Dev Patel have in common? The answer is that they have all played mathematics geniuses; the most recent being Patel as Srinivasa Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity. Ramanujan was a brilliant young Indian mathematician who came to Trinity College, Cambridge, a few months before the beginning of World War 1, at the invitation of G H Hardy (Jeremy Irons), one of the leading mathematicians of the day
The maths genius movie has become familiar over the last few years. It is essential that the genius in question is intellectually brilliant, socially awkward, and ultimately sympathetic to us the audience. It also helps if he has at least one mentor who understands and supports him. TMWKI ticks all those boxes.
What about the actual mathematics? Not only can we – the audience – not understand the workings of equations on blackboards, but we’re not even supposed to. That’s the point. We are supposed to stand in awe of this uber-brain on legs, half wishing we were that clever, but mostly thankful that we aren’t.
It’s what you might call the Sherlock Holmes syndrome (and the Cumberbatch connection is no coincidence). Great intellectual cleverness is fascinating to we dimmer mortals who can barely multiply 65 by 732.
The story of Ramanujan is undoubtedly a remarkable one. Born in 1887, from a humble Indian background, he had no formal training as a mathematician. He just seems to have been one of those people who grasps the complexities of that world, and circumstances (such as surviving smallpox, and being invited to Cambridge) provided him with an opportunity to reveal the depths of his genius.
The question is, so what? It’s a fascinating footnote, that an untrained genius from the subcontinent came to Cambridge 100 years ago, and made a name for himself as a genius. But that doesn’t amount to a film. A film needs to about something- and this film fails to come up with a something for us to care about. There are a number of red herrings: a wife left behind in India dealing with a hostile mother-in-law; bog standard English racism; an academic who feels threatened by Ramanujan’s brilliance; and Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Irons) espousing pacifism when the country is at war.
The trouble is, they smell like red herrings – and ones that are past their sell by date. They reek of contrivance and irrelevance. The film only really comes to life when Hardy and Ramanujan (Irons and Patel) are together on screen, embodying two divergent views of life – intuition versus proof. It’s a kind of intellectual bromance, which can be a very successful formula when handled well – see The King’s Speech. But this film lacks the courage of its convictions, and keeps heading off in different directions, losing the focus that is so essential to success.
It’s a case of what might have been. The maths is simple; 1 + 1 = hit.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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