The Man Who Knew Infinity **

The story of one of the world’s greatest mathematicians is as fun as calculus homework.

Is it worth $10? No

Early in “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” a Cambridge professor writes a math equation on the board, and then calls upon the non-note taking student Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) to finish it. Not only does Ramanujan finish it, he also completes extra portions that weren’t on the board. The professor asks how he knew how to do it. “I just do,” Ramanujan replies.

Ramanujan is from India, and comes from poverty. He also has a gift that most of the Cambridge mathematics fellows don’t know what to do with, so a combination of jealousy and prejudice ensue. Jeremy Irons helps as Ramanujan’s mentor/advisor G.H. Hardy, and adds an interesting twist: With Ramanujan clearly a genius prodigy with little formal training, it seems like a foregone conclusion that his work should be published. Hardy, however, raises an interesting point in that Ramanujan comes to his conclusions via instinct and happens to be right (just like Mozart could compose a symphony in his head, Hardy says). In reality, Ramanujan doesn’t understand how or why the answer is correct. Therefore Hardy requires Ramanujan to complete “proofs” to show how he gets his results, which naturally Ramanujan finds it to be a waste of time. And yet it makes perfect sense for Hardy to require this, because doing so leaves nothing for the academic community to question.

The story covers 1914-20, so World War I occurs in the background, and more or less stays there. It never has much of an effect on Ramanujan, except for inconveniencing him as the Cambridge campus turns into a hospital. Similar to the relevance of the war to the story, writer/director Matt Brown’s film doesn’t quite know how to handle Ramanujan. He’s not really rebellious, but knows he’s smarter than everyone else. He’s religious and devoted to his family in India, but never sends for them to join him. In many ways he’s a lost soul in search of a solution to his life, an odd irony given how instinctively he comes to solutions in other ways. We like him, and sympathize with the discrimination he suffers and his distance from home, but the fact remains that he’s kind of a boring math geek and not interesting enough to be the subject of a movie.

It’s also true that “The Man Who Knew Infinity” is too much about partitions and prime numbers and doesn’t get us invested enough in the people involved. In “The Imitation Game,” for example, Alan Turing was a social misfit in addition to creating the world’s first computer. Stephen Hawking had ALS in “The Theory of Everything” while becoming the most renowned physicist in the world. Ramanujan misses home, and only well into the film battles health issues. That’s it – that’s all the edge we get. It’s not enough.  

“The Man Who Knew Infinity” tells the story of a man who deserves to be remembered by history, but not by a 108-minute movie. Read Ramanujan’s Wikipedia page and you’ll learn all you need to know about him – that’ll only take 10 minutes.

Did you know?
Per Wikipedia: Ramanujan completed 3,900 “results” throughout his life, most of which were later proven correct.