Srinivasa Ramanujan (played by the spirited Dav Patel) is a poverty-stricken young man from India who also happens to harbor one of the greatest mathematical minds of the 20th Century. He gets admitted into one of the most prestigious schools in England (Cambridge), makes some friends and enemies, and leaves behind a handful of publications. Early on into the movie, Ramanujan’s wife asks him, what’s the purpose of the math that he spends all his time on? We might ask the same question of this film. After all, the true-to-life-misunderstood-genius-struggling-to-gain-recognition biopic is a well-trodden path, what makes this one so special?
I must first began by acknowledging the exquisitely beautiful cinematography and acting done in this film. In terms of visuals, this movie is flawless. The scenes of Trinity campus at Cambridge is properly glorified and I appreciated the attention to detail paid to the decoration of Ramanujan’s boarding room (e.g., the little religious figurines on his desk and the post-it notes by his window). The dining hall reminds us of Hogwarts and we can’t help but drink in the magic in the air. Patel’s interpretation of Ramanujan as a character straddles between humility and arrogance thus giving a seemingly simple character a touch of complexity. Likewise, his tough-love mentor and partner-in-crime G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) makes for a believable math professor who thinks he’s cleverer than he is.
Alas, impeccable visuals and charismatic performances in themselves do not guarantee a story well-told. Narratively speaking, The Man Who Knew Infinity leaves much to be desired. My biggest gripe is the movie attempts to be an epic but ends up feeling more like a short-story. The filmmakers bring to play several relationships, conflicts, and themes but fails to say anything new nor meaningful about them. Rather, they end up distracting us away from the more interesting aspects of Ramanujan’s life i.e., his mind and his unique contributions to the world of math.
Thinking about this movie, several relationships and conflicts come to mind. The most important relationships were Ramanujan’s relationship with his wife, his relationship with his mom, and his relationship with his mentor. Abstract relationships include his relationship with mathematics and his relationship to his God. All we really had to know was his wife loved him unconditionally; his mom contracted empty nest syndrome but ultimately is shown to be proud of his achievements; and his mentor and him disagreed on methods but they eventually become besties. There were no shortage of conflicts either. There was the main conflict between him and Hardy on what makes for publishable material in the math world, conflict between him and the people who shun him for his skin color, and conflict between him and other professors who see him as a threat to their superiority.
Although family-relations, racism, and workplace drama are important themes to explore, here in this particular story, they do little to advance the actual plot nor make the story more interesting. Maybe the point here is that all geniuses were products of their time and we must look at the historical circumstances in order to understand any genius. But the thing you have to know is this: Ramanujan as a character is interesting precisely because he tried to live a life that transcended his historical circumstances. Although his body absorbed much cultural shock when he landed in England, his mind remained relatively unscathed. His only real concern was whether or not he can get his work published. We get a tiny glimpse of Ramanujan’s inseparability from the beauty that his work provides him and it is Ramanujan obsessive relationship with this beauty that we find rare and fascinating. This relationship is the only one worth developing but we are left wanting.
When we meet Ramanujan, he was already a young man with a thick tome of self-made equations under his belt. We get it, he’s smart -but how did he get here? I read a bit into his history and found out he actually developed his math skills with accidental acquaintances when he was young and continued to study by himself with several different textbooks along the way. It would have been nice to see Ramanujan childhood onscreen instead of the lovey-dovey stuff between him and his wife. Throughout the film were also a number of scenes of Ramanujan praying and engaging in rituals of his religion. This was tersely explained near the end that Divine Intervention was responsible for much of his mathematical insights and that without God his math would be meaningless to him. I felt like this important piece of information should have been treated as a topic of discussion rather than a convenient plot device. It’s strange to say this, but I was actually looking-forward to learning some math. The movies gestures towards, hints at, and directly comments on Ramanujan’s mathematical brilliance but the audience is never shown directly the beauty of mathematics of which Ramanujan and his mentors seem so obsessed with. I understand it’s hard to depict the sex appeal of numbers but you’d think a movie devoted to telling the story of a mathematical prodigy would not shy away from the attempt.
All in all, there was a lot of potential here. It’s a shame this one ended up more of a sketchy melodrama than a straightforward biography. The filmmakers attempt to capture a bit of everything in regards to Ramanujan’s life but his life just happens to be much less interesting than his mind. Hardy continually insists that the mathematical theorems Ramanujan comes up with are worthless without proof. This movie -much like Ramanujan’s intuited theorems- however dazzlingly and spectacular, will still require proof to validate its existence.