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Bad math

Infinity doesn't add up to the true story

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The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the true story of Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar, an Indian mathematician who made important contributions to mathematics in the early 20th century while living a life worthy of a far better biopic.

The film, written and directed by Matt Brown, is based on a 1991 novel of the same name by Robert Kanigel. Dev Patel, who you may remember from Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and last year's Chappie, plays Ramanujan. Ramanujan grew up poor in Madras, India. We see his arranged marriage to Janaki (Devika Bhise), an obscenely beautiful woman to whom Ramanujan appears entirely apathetic. He sleeps on the floor on the night of their wedding until she kindly invites him up to the bed, and it's moderately touching. My modern mind immediately started speculating on what might be the cause of this marital prudishness, but this is India, circa 1914, and so I think we are meant to interpret his cool demeanor as garden-variety shyness.

Ramanujan and Janaki are of a lower caste, and that's where custom dictates he should have stayed, except that his extraordinary, untrained talent in math has a way of moving his life in a more spirited direction. Ramanujan sends his formulas to scholars around the world, and before long he receives an answer from G.H. Hardy at Cambridge University, played by Jeremy Irons, inviting him to work on his theories and study in London.

“What’d you get for No. 3?””
  • “What’d you get for No. 3?””

The invitation is a terrible blow to Ramanujan's family, who would prefer that he stay in India and live a life of quiet desperation with them instead. The face of his mother on the docks as Ramanujan is about to set sail is so thoroughly aghast and tortured that I couldn't help but laugh—but this is a film more or less entirely devoid of humor, so I don't think my reaction is quite what they were going for. Janaki can't come with him for some reason, but he vows to send for her as soon as he is able, and in this separation a weak romantic subplot is born.

Once in Cambridge, Ramanujan struggles to fit in among a sea of white people against the backdrop of World War I, where he faces the requisite amount of institutional racism that you would expect for the time and place. Ramanujan speaks some with the few other Indian people in the department. In these scenes, we're meant to experience the "otherness" that Ramanujan and his peers feel. All of them are speaking the King's English fluently, but that's not anything close to what the real Ramanujan, fresh off the boat from Madras, would have sounded like. I understand that westernized versions of otherworldly characters are a conceit that filmgoers have always stoically swallowed and accepted, but what I don't understand is why that is. Pardon me, film, but you're trying to tell us a story about ethnicity while at the same time assuming that your audience can't stomach a genuine portrayal of it. What are we supposed to do with that?

If the film has any merit, it comes from the interplay between Irons and Patel. Both are passionate about the work and have very different ideas on how to approach it, but even these scenes are stretched thin against the painfully average filmmaking. The movie looks like a hotel painting with an insipid score to match, and it's too bad, because Ramanujan's place in the history of mathematics is important. His legacy deserves a better film.

The Man Who Knew Infinity opens at the Roxy Fri., May 13.

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