In 1913, the young Indian accounting clerk and self-taught mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan wrote to G. H. Hardy, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, hoping for his help in gaining international recognition of his original work in number theory. Hardy invited Ramanujan to come to England, and the result was a collaboration which has since become legendary. This part of Ramanujan's life, from 1914 to 1919, is the subject of a new British biographical film, The Man Who Knew Infinity, written and directed by Matt Brown.
The cast includes household names Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons in the two main roles. Stephen Fry also appears in the minor role of Sir Francis Spring, Ramanujan's boss in India. The acting is flawless, with a very enjoyable ensemble of eccentric college dons played by Toby Jones (as the mathematician John Littlewood), Jeremy Northam (as Bertrand Russell), Kevin McNally (Major Percy MacMahon), and others.
The film's central focus, the development of Ramanujan and Hardy's friendship, is highly believable, including the persistent awkward distance between them. Another strength of the film is the gorgeous locations of Trinity College as well as Ramanujan's native Tamil Nadu.
The film is the latest in a string of biopics about people whose minds can reach things far beyond what the rest of us can comprehend. The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game are the most recent examples. It is by its very nature challenging to do justice to such a subject matter while also making it accessible to a broad audience. Nonetheless, The Man Who Knew Infinity could perhaps have done more to explore the substance of Ramanujan's ideas. In an early scene, Ramanujan's young wife asks him to explain his work to her yet still he fails to offer her more than a couple of abstract platitudes. The maths in the film has been lauded for its accuracy, but at the same time it is mostly treated in a cursory way and remains opaque. The layman (such as this reviewer) is made to feel impressed at Ramanujan's mental gymnastics, but is made to know little more of 'infinity' than Ramanujan's adoring wife and mother back in India.
In the film, Ramanujan stands for intuition and spirit but gradually learns to accommodate Hardy's demands for hard reasoning and rigorous proof. It is the exploration of philosophical themes arising from this dynamic which is the film's main achievement rather than its treatment of mathematics; Ramanujan's genius is asserted without proof. The film does attempt to explain the maths in places, but it could perhaps have taken it a few steps further without any risk of alienating an intelligent audience.
Despite sometimes resorting to sentimentality, the film is recommendable both for its qualities as a film but also for highlighting both Ramanujan's contribution to knowledge in the face of colonial racism, and Hardy's insistence on valuing the life of the mind for its own sake, in the face of the demands and pressures of a World War.
The Man Who Knew Infinity is currently showing at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Jericho. While lingering in the foyer waiting to go in, we couldn't help but notice the huge range in films coming up. There seems to be something for everyone, ranging from live screenings from the Royal Shakespeare Company, to a Studio Ghibli festival, to showings of classics like The Big Lebowski. With comfortable seats and a nice big screen (and not too many adverts before the film!), the Phoenix combines the feel of an independent cinema with the comforts of a mainstream chain.