The Man Who Knew Infinity is the story of the math genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan who is famous for making groundbreaking contributions to theoretical mathematics.
Interestingly enough, the film doesn’t fail in making formula-writing into riveting plot material. It fails in the ways that a lot of the “genius genre” films do: oscillating between melodrama and unbridled wide-eyed “oh, aren’t you impressed” theatrics. The authenticity rings hollow and the film falls victim to many overused tropes–namely the “obscurity to recognition” trajectory of geniuses and the fact that only the West is deemed authoritative enough to recognize geniuses.
Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a self-taught mathematician living in India, barely scraping by as an accounting clerk. In his spare time, he writes formulas for ideas such as the number of partitions a number has, with the number growing to infinity. He writes a letter with his work to G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), a mathematician at Trinity College in Cambridge. Hardy is so impressed by Ramanujan that he summons him to England to learn more about his theories.
The relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan is easily the most compelling part of the film, as the audience hardly gets to know much about Ramanujan other than his work. Ramanujan credits divine inspiration for his incalculable formulas—he says it’s intuition that things are right is all he needs. Hardy is presented as an atheist who couldn’t possibly grasp the mystical ways of Hinduism.
This precisely is the issue with the film—you won’t have to look far for “Orientalist” overtones, ad infinitum. Ramanujan’s spirituality is presented clumsily, replete with elephant Ganesha statues and all sorts of reductionistic motifs. He is made to look provincial in mind—merely the vessel for genius bestowed from up above.
The colonial mentality of England is presented surprisingly well, on the other hand. Everyone, but a few people like Hardy, make little effort to hide their disdain for Ramanujan’s Indian origin and humble beginnings. Micro aggressions, including not being allowed to step on the grass at Cambridge, abound.
Jeremy Irons plays Hardy beautifully, as a man wanting to help Ramanujan but perhaps too timid in facing down the pervasive racism leveled at his protégé. He publishes Ramanujan’s work and seeks to get him a fellowship but not once does he actually ever address the colonial mentality espoused by his colleagues—he simply, and formulaically, advocates for Ramanujan as a mathematician, not as a person.
Dev Patel, too, stays mired in playing Ramanujan as a bumbling country bumpkin; tall, gawky and impossibly awkward in every sense. All he wants, he says, is to publish and to get people to read his work, the scope of which is mind-boggling. In a true genius sense, he can’t be bothered with Hardy’s pedantics of proving theories.
The viewers are made to feel as though he has so many ideas bursting forth, it is all he can do to keep up with even so much as recording them. But the person gets lost in the formulas. We never understand, for example, much about his love for his wife, whom he left behind in India. We get little nuancing of him other than as a repository for other-worldly ideas. In the midst of all of this, mawkishness abounds… soft lighting and Indian sitar strains do, too.