Everyone knows the names Isaac Newton and Archimedes even if they don’t quite understand the theories that made them famous. Not as well known is the name Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian autodidact who died at age 32 in 1920 but left behind contributions to mathematical analysis and number theory that are still being studied today. “The Man Who Knew Infinity” aims to do for Ramanujan what “A Beautiful Mind” did for John Nash.
We first see Dev Patel as Ramanujan as a twenty-five-year-old struggling to find work in India after following his obsession with math to the detriment of all his other subjects. In desperation he forwards samples of his mathematical theory to British academic G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons). Startled by the quality of the work Hardy invites the young man to study at Cambridge’s Trinity College. There, in the shadow of Newton’s greatest discoveries, the genius’s work can take the step from theory to tangible, but first he must battle indifference and intolerance.
Unlike other films that sought to help us understand the mathematics on display, “The Man Who Knew Infinity” chooses to focus on the relationship between Ramanujan and Hardy. Their tales of awakening, Ramanujan’s intellectual blossoming and Hardy’s personal growth from cold theoretician to… well, a less cold theoretician, isn’t exactly epic or the stuff of great drama, but the story of their friendship doesn’t need bells and whistles when it has Patel and Irons.
They anchor this straightforward “Masterpiece Theatre” style look at Ramanujan’s beautiful mind, building a relationship with one another and the audience. I suppose the film’s main purpose is to establish Ramanujan’s place alongside Einstein et al and in that it succeeds. We’re told his work is still used in the study of black holes decades after his death. Impressive stuff. Less effective is an undercooked love story between the mathematician and the wife he left behind. In life that may have been Ramanujan’s main relationship but for the purpose of the film it takes away from the story’s main hypothesis.
“The Man Who Knew Infinity” is a study of relationships, the bond between the two men, mentor and student, and Ramanujan’s connection with mathematics. It’s a bit by the numbers but nonetheless deserves a place on the shelf between “A Beautiful Mind” and “The Imitation Game.”