May 27 — June 02
The Man Who Knew Infinity
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
Though his name probably isn’t recognizable to many, and he died almost a century ago, Srinivasa Ramanujan left a considerable legacy in the realm of mathematics. His theories are still used today to understand black holes, and experts consider him one of the greatest mathematicians who ever lived. That he passed away at 32; was largely self-taught, with little formal education as a child; struggled to adjust to Western culture when he moved to England to study at Cambridge; faced discrimination and snide condescension at every turn; dealt with the loneliness of leaving his wife and mother behind in India; navigated the social upheaval caused by WWI—these obstacles make his accomplishments all the more incredible. One leaves writer-director Matt Brown’s compelling biopic with the feeling of so much potential left untapped—but what Ramanujan did achieve is still impressive. Based on Robert Kanigel’s excellent biography, the movie could’ve easily stuck to the traditional “underdog beats adversity” template and still been a fascinating, intelligent drama about a person who deserves to be better known. But The Man Who Knew Infinity has loftier ambitions, as befitting its otherworldly title: the real theme is Ramanujan’s desire to leave his mark on the world, to truly “live” beyond the limited span of earthly life. Perhaps he’d foreseen his own early demise in 1920. Or perhaps, sensing how unique his genius truly was—he believes his formulas and theories are channeled through him directly from God—Ramanujan felt pressured to use his gifts to change the world. He did change the world, but his name isn’t the byword for pure intellectual like, say, Einstein or Oppenheimer. Yet Ramanujan in his own way did find “infinity.” More than most other biopics, Matt Brown’s film gives audiences a feel for what pure intellectual ability looks like—most movies have to adorn their genius-heroes with cute eccentricity or somber brooding, but actor Dev Patel brings fresh-faced, boyish charm and straightforward presence to the role. He’s completely humble and unassuming; only when sharing the brain-stretching theories he’s effortlessly developed (with few formal “proofs” demanded by more pragmatic Western scholars) do viewers realize his superhuman ability. Even his determination to publish his groundbreaking work as quickly as possible comes across as simple, naïve optimism than arrogant superiority. Patel brings the same innate likeability to Ramanujan that he did to his Dickensian hero in Slumdog Millionaire and his fumbling, would-be entrepreneur in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, creating a protagonist who’s instantly sympathetic and charming. He’s so likeable, in fact, that we might fear the movie will hit the injustice and bigotry Ramanujan faced a little too hard; but the film doesn’t press the obvious points too much. The fact that Ramanujan’s story has remained relatively unknown to most Westerners says everything we need to know about racial prejudice and the assumption that non-white people don’t possess the same rigorous intellectual capacity as the Anglo-Saxon elite. Part of the movie’s subtext is that Ramanujan wants to “prove” Indians can compete in the field of mathematics and science—a concern that might seem less relevant today than it was when India was still under British rule. Patel is the focus of audience empathy but he’s surrounded by excellent supporting performances, including newcomer Devika Bhise as his tentatively supportive wife (by arranged marriage); Stephen Fry as the exemplar of racist entitlement; Tobey Jones as a Cambridge academic who marvels at Ramanujan’s intellect while sadly realizing that his own achievements are left in the shade; and Jeremy Northam as sardonic, intimidating polymath Bertrand Russell. But the real gem is screen icon Jeremy Irons as eccentric professor G.H. Hardy, whose relationship with young Ramanujan is the heart of the film. Hardy’s initially paternal mentor gradually becomes a genuine friend and equal as Ramanujan’s intelligence guilelessly asserts itself. An outspoken atheist, Hardy has his views challenged by Ramanujan’s insistence that his genius comes from God and that his life on Earth has divine purpose. Hardy comes to respect Ramanujan’s religious beliefs—the devout Hindu nearly starves during war-time rationing because he won’t violate his strict vegetarian diet—while trying to make Ramanujan a more “concrete” thinker—i.e., follow the academic establishment’s rigid protocols for publishing new scientific theories. Irons has been a sparse presence on screen on late, so it’s great to see him stealing every scene he’s in with his characteristic British understatement, both amused and self-deprecating. Irons can do more with an arched eyebrow than most actors can with the juiciest monologue, and it’s a pleasure to see him interact with Patel’s warmer, more open-hearted personality. Their chemistry helps make The Man Who Saw Infinity a most unusual biopic, one in which it’s the friendship between two people—one a formidable genius, the other a more common sort of “ivy-covered halls” intellectual—that drives the film. Ramanujan and Hardy come across as flawed individuals with amazing gifts, making this the rare movie that really celebrates intelligence. And it’s entertaining all the way, because unlike many biopics, we care about these people for themselves, not just for what they did. Audiences with a taste for smart, engaging, and heartfelt true stories won’t find better than The Man Who Saw Infinity.
(Rated PG-13 for mature themes.)
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