The Man Who Knew Infinity
Director: Matt Brown
Writer: Matt Brown
Based on: Robert Kanigel‘s biography of Srinivasa Ramanujan
Cast: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Malcolm Sinclair, Raghuvir Joshi, Dhritiman Chatterjee, Arundathi Nag, Devika Bhise, Stephen Fry, Toby Jones, Jeremy Northam
Seen on: 19.7.2016
Ramanujan (Dev Patel) works as a clerk in India, but his passion lies with mathematics. Unfortunately he finds nobody to listen to his theories and formulas because he doesn’t have any formal education. But then he manages to convince Francis Spring (Stephen Fry) to bring his notebook to England where it reaches G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) and fellow professor Littlewood (Toby Jones) at Cambridge. Hardy in particular is intrigued by the wild talent he sees in Ramanujan and arranges for him to come to the UK. Although he has to leave his wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) behind, Ramanujan can’t let this chance for recognition go and makes his way to England and academia.
The Man Who Knew Infinity covers an interesting story but it is stuck too much in storytelling and filmmaking conventions to leave much of an impression.
Many years ago, I read The Indian Clerk, a fictionalized account of Ramanujan’s life and it’s actually surprising that it took them so long to turn his life into a film – it’s such a good story that seems made for Hollywood. Brown seems to have thought the same thing and tells the story exactly like you would expect it. There is not a step outside of well-established perimeters. So much so, that it wouldn’t surprise me if he had consulted script writing and directing handbooks and followed the advice to the letter. That advice isn’t necessarily bad, but it doesn’t leave any room for something innovative or for just making the story your own.
And it also means that the film falls into quite a few well-established pitfalls. Most annoyingly when it comes to how they treat Janaki (and her relationship with her mother-in-law Komalatammal [Arundathi Nag]). She is the epitome of the “brilliant man’s wife” as films like to make them out – always submissive and loving, she doesn’t even attempt to understand what he’s working on since she couldn’t possibly understand it. She waits patiently until he has time for her (whenever his work permits it) and after his death, she still devotes the rest of her life to him by taking care of his estate. Whenever the movie devotes any time to her, it’s to show what a good wife she’s being, even when her mother-in-law treats her badly (because they couldn’t possibly get along anyway). Apart from that she doesn’t get a personality. She doesn’t need a personality, she is Ramanujan’s wife.
The film spends so little time on her, though, that the sexism barely factors into it anyway. This is a man’s world and it’s more about the relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan than anything else. That relationship is complex but barely touches on Hardy’s homosexuality or the distinct colonial undertones to it, which does seem like a missed opportunity. At least they don’t gloss over the rampant racism Ramanujan had to face in addition to everything.
In any case, the story is still good. It might be even more intriguing precisely because so much of his work was disproven. The cast was excellent, with Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell as a particular bonus. And it’s not like the film was all that bad. It just wasn’t all that good either.