Review: Mentor overshadows genius in ‘Infinity’

Tom Long
The Detroit News

The odd thing about “The Man Who Knew Infinity” is that it isn’t really all that much about the man who knew infinity.

Instead it ends up being about the man who knew the man who knew infinity.

This mostly has to do with Jeremy Irons’ strong and purposely understated turn as a Cambridge mathematician, G.H. Hardy, who sponsors the education and work of an impoverished Indian savant named Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel). Although based on a true, extraordinary story, the film — written and directed by Matthew Brown — finds more purchase in the professor’s struggle for emotional connection than in the prodigy’s intellectual gifts.

This perhaps has to do with the difficulty of making mathematics sing on screen, particularly mathematics that are far outside the realm of the common man. When mathematical genius has played well in film — “A Beautiful Mind,” “Good Will Hunting” — it’s a matter of forceful personality; no such personality exists here.

Instead, we meet Ramanujan as he’s sleeping on the streets of Madras, scrawling equations in chalk on the floor of a Hindu temple. Completely self-taught, his ideas are so lofty that no one in pre-World War I India can understand them. Eventually, he lands a job as an accountant and his bosses suggest he send some of his work to bonafide mathematicians in England to see if it makes sense to them.

Ah, but there’s a hitch, in that Ramanujan is hitched. Once he has a job, his bride and mother come to live with him. Neither has any idea what Ramanujan’s scribblings mean, they just know they don’t want him to go away.

But go away he does when Hardy receives a letter containing some of his work. Ramanujan travels to England, thrilled to meet Hardy, but is taken aback by the glacial don’s emotional distance and insistence on discipline. And really, this is where the movie finds its heart, with a man who has suppressed his.

The stiff-lipped Hardy doesn’t like to be touched, has only one friend in the world — a fellow mathematician (Toby Jones) — and while he’s impressed by Ramanujan’s gifts, he’s also wary of how easily the man gushes out complex theories and equations. The film — intentionally or not — becomes about Hardy’s struggle to connect with and steer the genius.

Or at least that’s the interesting part of the film. There’s also a long distance love story going on, some racism and World War I, as well as Ramanujan’s efforts to explain where his ideas come from (God is speaking through him). Oh, and a bunch of math-speak that’s generally incomprehensible.

Ramanujan’s story — people are still using his work today — is fascinating, but it’s not really fleshed out in “The Man Who Knew Infinity.” What is given flesh is the tragedy of emotional repression, the isolation of soul, the perpetual view from afar that haunts some, brought to halting, uneasy life by Jeremy Irons.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic

‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’

GRADE: B-

Rated PG-13: for some thematic elements and smoking

Running time: 108 minutes