Depicting geniuses on screen is one of those ideas filmmakers still can’t seem to crack, especially when the creations of these geniuses might not seem all that exciting. That’s the challenge facing The Man Who Knew Infinity, which focuses on mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan’s name may not be well known to most people, but his contributions to mathematics are widespread. The Man Who Knew Infinity may not make Ramanujan that much more known, but it does do a solid job of depicting its subject.
Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a mathematician in India who, despite no formal education, understands mathematical abstraction in a unique way. After developing ideas largely in isolation in India for years, he leaves his home – along with his wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) and mother – to go to Cambridge through an invitation from G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), a professor intrigued by some examples of Ramanujan’s work sent via mail. Ramanujan ultimately stays at Cambridge for five years, during World War I, with Ramanujan and Hardy developing a friendship and professional relationship that refines Ramanujan’s work.
The Man Who Knew Infinity has some clichéd biopic elements, to be sure, but it’s helped by not dwelling on them for too long. For example, Ramanujan experiences racism once he arrives at Cambridge, in both verbal and physical forms. But Ramanujan also interacts with other Indian students and Englishmen with better worldviews. The film also incorporates Indian culture in a way that gives the film some texture, without leaning on it as a narrative crutch. The same goes for the film’s inclusion of math.
At the same time, this middle-ground approach to the material does have one negative result: it makes any conflict or stakes seem minor. This comes through most notably in Ramanujan’s refusal to prove his theories at Hardy’s request, which seems unbelievable. This tension ultimately is connected to the way Ramanujan and Hardy view faith: Ramanujan is spiritual, and Hardy is not. In standard biopic form, the inevitable conclusion to these conflicts is, well, predictable. There’s little new in the structure of the film, but at the very least, it does prove informative about a man who introduced some fascinating concepts into mathematics.