Cambridge to nowhere

This movie’s about as necessary as that umbrella.

This movie’s about as necessary as that umbrella.

Rated 2.0

Dev Patel stars in this stodgy biopic of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a sparsely educated Indian mathematician from a dirt-poor background who was admitted to Cambridge University on the eve of World War I, where he made some of the most important breakthroughs in the history of his field. It’s a fascinating life story, tragic and inspirational in equal measures, but writer-director Matthew Brown’s adaptation of Robert Kanigel’s biography walks the most doddering and insulting paths wherever possible.

Instead of focusing entirely on Ramanujan and his life and work, the narrative is inexplicably framed as a flashback-memoir of Jeremy Irons’ twinkly-eyed professor G.H. Hardy, effectively turning Ramanujan’s story into one of those simpering, pseudo-inspirational, I-tried-to-tame-the-savage-beast-but-really-I-was-the-beast-and-he-tamed-me-whaaaaa cinematic aspirin tablets. Brown clearly identifies with Hardy the rogue imperialist rather than with the meager and rigorous Ramanujan, which is a problem.

Obviously, The Man Who Knew Infinity would never get made without the familiar, art-house friendly faces of “By Jove!” monocle-twirlers like Irons, Toby Jones, Stephen Fry and Jeremy Northam (playing Bertrand Russell), but ownership of Ramanujan’s story is fully ceded to his British benefactors and colleagues. Can you imagine if Good Will Hunting were told entirely as the flashback of an incidental Indian co-worker? I can imagine it, and it’s a vast improvement. Bad example. The point is that it would never happen.

As though slowly rising after a long afternoon nap, The Man Who Knew Infinity blearily stumbles in a cobweb of hackneyed and over-reductive ideas that it never manages to shake off. Brown carefully establishes to the audience that the film will actually tell the story of rich, uptight, old white guys who grow an inch instead of delving too deep into the life and mind of an Indian mathematician, and only then feels comfortable enough to sketch in the barest details of Ramanujan’s backstory.

Born and raised in Madras without much formal training, Ramanujan nevertheless excelled at advanced mathematics, but the film would rather assume a Neo-like, chosen-one precocity than attempt to understand his long struggle, so it opens on the eve of his “discovery” by westerners. Penniless and desperate, Ramanujan scores an entry-level accounting job, and it’s not long before his skills and tenacity attract the attention of Hardy and Cambridge, and Ramanujan is forced to abandon his wife (who was actually 11 or 12 years old at this time, but that’s neither heartwarming nor inspirational, so get it out).

As in the recent Havana-set Papa Hemingway in Cuba, the only thing to recommend about the film is the location scouting. The Man Who Knew Infinity was shot inside of Cambridge University, so it’s got that going for it. Unfortunately, the film also holds the same insipid view of Ramanujan’s work that The Theory of Everything held of Stephen Hawking’s, in that his herculean scientific achievements are valuable and understandable only in their ability to prove the existence of God. Highly respected contemporary mathematicians associate produced, so presumably they got the math right, if little else.