The Man Who Knew Infinity

2016-05-20 07:49

What it's about:

The true story of a young mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar (Dev Patel), who was plucked from obscurity and poverty in the city of Madras, India to work side by side at Cambridge University with famed mathematician G.H Hardy (Jeremy Irons) mere months before the outbreak of the first World War.

What we thought:

The Man Who Knew Infinity is that odd sort of film that as plenty going for it, yet just steadfastly refuses to add up to something truly satisfying. Following the model of films like a Beautiful Mind and the Imitation Game almost to a tee, this particular true story of a mathematical genius outsider has some wonderful performances, often witty dialogue and the kind of true story at its heart that may by now be somewhat familiar thanks to the above-mentioned films but is still well worth knowing. And yet and yet and yet, it never manages to rise beyond the solidly mediocre.

First, though, the good. Dev Patel plays a much more serious, reserved role than we're used to seeing from the guy who rose to fame through the controversial British teen show, Skins, and he's excellent throughout. Better yet, though, are Jeremy Irons and Toby Jones who do most of the heavy lifting in terms of sparky dialogue and bringing some life to what could easily be quite a dour film – though special mention must go to Jeremy Northam who is particularly fun as Bertrand Russell.

Unfortunately, the very fact that I'm concentrating on the performances first and the comic relief second says a lot about how everything else failed to truly captivate me. The film does raise some interesting questions about class and racism and the importance of academia in the face of war but the script by director Matt Brown never quite makes the leap from dryly interesting to truly emotionally and intellectually engaging.

Also, while both the Imitation Game and a Beautiful Mind - which has been the subject of a lot of backlash over the years but I still rather like – dealt with the maths part of the plot by shoving it to the back of the story and focusing on everything else (and they both had a lot of everything else to focus on, to be fair), it's a bit more front and centre this time around and, unless you're a mathematician yourself, it's hard to not start nodding off in those sequences. Not that the mathematics are really the focus of the film, to be sure, but they're dealt with enough that their lack of real-world application, which was to be found in both a Beautiful Mind and the Imitation Game, constantly threatens to grind the whole film to a jargon-filled halt.

Fortunately, it never quite manages to do that because they are usually offset by the much more engaging relationship between Ramanujan and Hardy and, by extension, Patel and Irons. Again, even here, it is still less compelling than it really aught to be but between the great performances and the fact that there is something interesting about the relationship between two brilliant but fundamentally asocial and difficult men, it just about works as a backbone to everything else that goes on.

The biggest, very nearly fatal, flaw with the film, though, are all the parts of the film that take place in India. All of the sparky wit to be found in the British sections of the film falls away every time we return to check in on the people that Ramanujan left behind and is replaced by po-faced corniness that reaches its absolute zenith with everything to do with Ramanujan and his wife. Their relationship is actually pretty intriguing at first with, what I presume to be, an arranged marriage resulting in a weird lack of intimacy but growing love, quickly devolving into a lot of longing stares and a rubbish non-comedy or errors when his clingy mother decides to interfere with their long-distance communication. I'm not sure if this part really happened or not but it plays like a serious misjudgement in the film. 

All in all, there's just about enough really good things about the Man Who Knew Infinity to give it a reserved recommendation but, for all of its demonstrably good intentions, it really should have been a whole lot better.

Read more on:    jeremy irons  |  stephen fry  |  movies

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