THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY. UK, 2016. Starring Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Toby Jones, Jeremy Northam, Kevin McNally, Devika Bhise, Anthony Calf, Stephen Fry, Richard Johnson. Directed by Matt Brown. 108 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes)
Dev Patel made a strong impression as a young man in the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire in 2008. He has grown older since then and is able to give a fine performance in an adult role, a man from the Madras in 1914 who has a talent for mathematics.
The film is based on actual events and characters, focusing on S. Ramanujan.
The film opens with a tribute to him spoken by Cambridge mathematician, G. H. Hardy, played with his customary seriousness by Jeremy Irons. The film moves in flashback to Madras, to Indian life in the city, a young married man, rather dominated by his mother, looking for a job and finding a sympathetic manager who introduces him to keeping accounts for British Sir Francis (Stephen Fry). But, the young man has notebooks full of mathematical equations – is not able to explain how he came to them. He relies on intuitions or, as he would interpret them, visions and enlightenment from the deity. He has an ambition to go to Cambridge, to meet Hardy and work with him, to publish his material – but caste customs indicate that he cannot travel abroad from India. However, with support from his wife but apprehensiveness from his mother, he sets out and goes to Cambridge.
He meets with Hardy and his associate John Littlewood (Toby Jones). He is exhilarated to be there. They are amazed, almost overwhelmed, by the amount of material in his two books of formulas. However, he is not entirely welcomed as an Indian in this academic world, especially when World War I breaks out and young British soldiers resent him as they go to war – and bash and kick him.
While many audiences will not be privy to the secrets and beauty of mathematics, they will still enjoyed this picture of a young genius, his earnestness, his willingness to collaborate, his eagerness to publish, the challenge by his mentor to provide rational proofs rather than claim intuition, not something he can easily do (and puzzles why this is necessary). It is always not always easy working with Hardy, a reclusive man whose sole world and life is mathematics but who has to learn, even a little, what it is to be human and to have some sympathy for others.
The study of the natural world is physics. Philosophers tell us that we can mentally abstract from the physical world to a plane of mathematics with its own order and beauty, open to Infinity. Beyond that is metaphysics. There is one moment for the uninitiated when 4 is explained: 1+1+1+1, 1+1+2, 1+3, 2+2, 4 – the several realities of a number which gives them a more complex life.
Ramanujan at one stage goes to a maths class, has an intuition which he writes on the board, only to be rebuked arrogantly and with racist tones by the professor who will later oppose Hardy’s nomination for Ramanujan to be a fellow of the College.
In the meantime, his wife is lonely for him in India, his mother proud of his publication but not forwarding her daughter-in-law’s letters which further isolates both husband and wife.
Ultimately, he will return to India after the end of the war, but suffering from tuberculosis.
At one stage, Hardy shows Ramanujan various manuscripts, including some from Isaac Newton, in the Wren Library in Cambridge – and, the audience will feel an emotional sympathy at the end, viewing one of Ramanujan’s manuscripts preserved in a glass case there.
In many ways the film is uplifting, and despite the mathematical themes, feel good.
Icon Released 5th May
Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.