How an impoverished autodidact revolutionized math

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Man Who Knew Infinity
RPL Film Theatre
June 3-5
3 out of 5

There are worse ways for a movie to fail than sheer ambition. The Man Who Knew Infinity has it in spades, but fails to solve a key aspect of the film: how to make math visually interesting.

The British drama revolves around Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire), arguably the most extraordinary mathematician of the last century. Born in extreme poverty, Ramanujan taught himself math and made considerable strides in number theory, continued fractions and related fields. Discovered by Cambridge eminence G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), Ramanujan travels to England to develop his talent.

This is not a rags-to-riches story. The culture clash wreaks havoc in Ramanujan’s life: racism is rampant in the university town and at academic level. His health — not very good to start with — deteriorates, and homesickness sucks.

The Man Who Knew Infinity hits the standard biopic notes while the contrast between Hardy and Ramanujan keeps things interesting. The former believes every discover must be proven using existing tools. The latter would rather move forward without having to explain his process. Both attitudes can be linked directly to their belief system: Hardy is an atheist, Ramanujan isn’t. Instead of separating them, these differences feed their work, and both men become better because of it.

Every so often, the film attempts to explain Ramanujan’s contributions to math. It fails miserably at it. Unlike Ron Howard in A Beautiful Mind, director Matthew Brown lacks the imagination to make the info visually compelling. It’s the big blemish in an otherwise heartfelt enterprise.