A winning formula

The Man Who Knew Infinity is the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, who grew up poor and uneducated in India yet had a preternatural affinity for and expertise in mathematics – so much so that he earned admittance to Trinity College, Cambridge University.

In only his second feature, writer/ producer/director Matthew Brown has fashioned a genteel but keenly observant portrait of an unheralded genius, one whose innate brilliance was misunderstood by many at the time, and whose ambitions were complicated by the prejudice he encountered, the onset of World War I, difficulties between his wife and mother in India (of which he was completely unaware), and a debilitating bout of tuberculosis.

The Man Who Knew Infinity could be labeled a high-toned soap opera, but Brown’s screenplay keeps the story on track throughout, aided immeasurably by an excellent cast headed by Dev Patel as Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons as GH Hardy, the Cambridge scholar whose early clashes with Ramanujan were his (admittedly indelicate) method of further encouragement.

Although Patel shares important scenes with Arundathi Nag as Ramanujan’s meddling mother and newcomer Devika Bhishe as his bride Janaki, the heart of the story is the relationship between Ramaujan and Hardy. Although The Man Who Knew Infinity is in no way a faith-based film, the characters – one a devout Hindi, the other a proclaimed atheist – engage in intriguing theological exchanges in between (and during) numbers-crunching. The wartime setting offers an interesting reflection of the characters’ intellectual warfare.

Irons, enjoying a banner year with earlier roles in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Race (in which he played the real-life character of Avery Brundage), is at his dominant best as Hardy, his surface cynicism subtly giving way to admiration and even wonder at Ramanujan’s brilliance. Once his mentor, Hardy comes to realize that they’re on equal footing – and he ultimately becomes willing to cede that.

A wonderful Toby Jones, Jeremy Northam (as Bertrand Russell), Kevin McNally, Stephen Fry, and the late Richard Johnson round out the cast as various academicians, some supportive of Ramanujan and others opposed. This is Johnson’s final performance, and it’s nice to report that it’s a role of substance as Trinity College’s vice-master Henry Jackson.

Likewise, The Man Who Knew Infinity is a film of substance, as well as one of compassion and great respect.

The Man Who Knew Infinity opens Friday.