Here is that rarest of cinematic pleasures – a fine story, beautifully told, acted to perfection by a first-rate cast, with a screenplay consisting mainly of intelligent conversation between adults of mature years, and with no recourse to car chases, explosions or gratuitous four-letter words. And with all of coming in at a little over an hour-and-a-half, it isn’t a moment too long. I can recommend The Man Who Knew Infinity, a British film written and directed by Matthew Brown, to cinemagoers of all ages as a necessary antidote to the likes of X-Men: Apocalypse and Captain America: Civil War (in 3D).
It’s the story of an Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, played with immense grace and sensitivity by Dev Patel, whom many will remember as the hero of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. In Boyle’s film, Patel’s character was an impoverished orphan boy growing up in the streets of Bombay who finds himself confronting the prospect of enormous wealth. In Brown’s film, Ramanujan lives with his widowed mother in the slums of Madras, working as a low-paid clerk in a shipping office before finding fame, if not fortune, as a mathematical genius. The year is 1913, India is still a British colony, and the world is on the brink of war. Ramanujan’s story – his gradual acceptance by the intellectual establishment in the face of academic rivalries and racial prejudice – was first told in a biography by Robert Kanigal, the basis of Brown’s screenplay.
Films about mathematicians now constitute something of a minor genre. A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting, and The Imitation Game are some of the best films the studios have given us. A Beautiful Mind was about the American mathematician John Nash, and starred Russell Crowe in one of his finest performances. At the centre of Nash’s career were the mysteries of game theory; at the centre of Ramanujan’s career were the mysteries of number theory and something mathematicians call “partitions”, which I won’t attempt to explain. The good news is that no special knowledge of maths is required of viewers, any more than an understanding of the financial markets was needed to enjoy Margin Call. Characters converse in their arcane jargon and scribble unintelligible things of blackboards. But we get the picture. (One day, perhaps, we will see epic biopics of Euclid and Pythagoras, with Greek actors and a grand musical score by Miklos Rosza.)
Ramanujan’s prodigious gifts were first recognised by the British mathematician G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), who became his friend and mentor. With Hardy’s encouragement, Ramanujan left his home and family in Madras to study at Trinity College in Cambridge, where his first mathematical paper was published at Hardy’s instigation. There are moving scenes when he leaves his beloved young bride Janaki (Devika Behise) to travel to England. Jealous of her son’s relationship, Ramanujan’s mother, who has been entrusted with posting Janaka’s letters to her husband, hides them instead in a drawer, leaving Ramanujan to conclude that his wife has deserted him.
It is a film crammed with unexpected pleasures, not least the architectural glories of Cambridge university, where no film crew had been allowed to film before. I liked the moment when Ramanujan’s employer at the shipping office reproves him for not using an abacus to check the company accounts, to which Ramanujan replies that he can make all the necessary calculations in his head. Like many great mathematicians, Ramanujan grasped mathematical truths intuitively, and was only with difficulty persuaded to formulate the necessary proofs. For him, maths was as much an art as a branch of science. In the words of the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell: “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty … capable of a stern perfection as only the greatest art can show.” For Ramanujan, mathematics was closer to the divine spirit: “An equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.” I recall my old maths teacher at school expressing similar sentiments, though I think he put God in second place: “God can create a universe without matter, but he cannot create a universe without pi.”
I have seen no finer performance from Jeremy Irons – a touching blend of wisdom, compassion amd stern practicality, combined with a resolute determination to defy the racist attitudes of his fellow dons. Stephen Fry, Toby Jones and Jeremy Northam (as Russell) add to a distinguished cast. Championed by Hardy, and against powerful resistance, Ramanujan was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 30. It was the culmination, in many ways the vindication, of his life and career. The film includes (in slightly altered form) a famous incident described by C.P. Snow –
Hardy used to visit Ramanujan as he lay dying in hospital in Putney… Hardy had gone out to Putney by taxi, as usual his chosen method of conveyance. He went into the room where Ramanujan was lying and said, probably without a greeting, and certainly as his first remark: “I thought that the number of my taxi-cab was 1729. It seemed to me rather a dull number.” To which Ramanujan replied: “No, Hardy! No, Hardy! It is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.*
This absorbing and beautiful film should not be missed.
The Man Who Knew Infinity, rated PG, is screening in selected cinemas.
* 12 cubed + 1 cubed = 10 cubed + 9 cubed = 1729 (as if you didn’t know).
Evan Williams reviewed films in The Australian newspaper for 33 years. He is a Life Member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia for services to film criticism and the film industry.In 2015 he received the Geraldine Pascal Lifetime Achievement Award for critical writing.