English Film Review

The Man Who Knew Infinity

A surprisingly dull and clinical retelling of the years that Indian genius mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) spent at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1914-1919.

Basing his research on Robert Kanigel’s 1991 book, The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan, the one correct decision that writer-director Matthew Brown took in filming The Man Who Knew Infinity is focussing his tale on the years Ramanujan spent in England rather than try to encompass his entire life, incredible though it was. These portions, filmed on location at Cambridge and exploring his interaction with fellow colleague GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons)  give the film some of its better human moments. In particular, Ramanujan’s relationship with Hardy and how the two men learn to work around their difference in ideologies – one a god fearing man and the other an atheist; one who gets his mad inspirations from above, the other believing in sanity of logic and proof – is reasonably well-handled.  We feel the gradual development of their bond and the mutual respect they have for each other.

Yet for all its little merits, the treatment is little more than on the surface, cold, correct and flat, with few ups and downs to make for an engaging film. For instance, we have the token scene to show Ramanujan facing racial abuse in England by itself and that’s about it. The narrative flow misses that sense of layering while addressing Ramanujan’s various issues in England and one has to blame the weak writing for this.

Worse, Brown dilutes the film by spending far too much time in India, first in portions leading to Ramanujan being called to England and later on to explore the effect his absence has on his young wife, Janki (Devika Bhise), and mother, Komalatammal (Arundathi Nag). These bits are terribly, terribly clunky, reminding you yet again just how awfully stilted Indian English can sound if not handled carefully. The dialogue sounds laughably corny, the sequences are weak and unable to escape the Western eye of exotic and spiritual India. In fact, you wonder why Brown chose to use English even in the scenes between Ramanujan and his family members. Tamil with English sub-titles would not only have made them more natural and authentic, it would surely have made these sequences far more bearable.

Dev Patel is sincere in his act but badly miscast. While people outside India will not be able tell the difference, he does not make for a convincing ‘Tam Brahm’ at all or someone who lives, eats and breathes Mathematics. A fellow South Indian with me even pointed out his lungi in the early India scenes was all wrong. His accent and diction are strange, being neither here nor there. As an actor too, he has his work cut out for him playing opposite the seasoned Jeremy Irons. Irons, thankfully, lifts the film a notch or two with his expertly layered performance and delivers the necessary emotional wallop in his speech post Ramanujan’s death. Toby Jones as soft-spoken fellow mathematician JE Littlewood and Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell sprouting some perceptive and witty dialogue lend fine support. Devika Bhise is easy on the eyes but is totally defeated by the script as is Arundathi Nag. Only Dhritiman Chatterjee comes off not sounding ridiculous in the India portions.

The technicalities area adequate enough but can do little to lift the film as finally, The Man Who Knew Infinity is a disengaging and dreary film that fails to do proper justice to its remarkable central character. And that is a pity.

Score40%

English, Drama, Color

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