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The Man Who Knew Infinity portrays a series of historical events that called out for the screen. Its story about a pair of mathematicians is so cinematic, in fact, that you’ve seen it before: Some parts can be found in The Theory of Everything. Other aspects are prominent in The Imitation Game. And there’s also a bit of The Odd Couple thrown in—though this drama, which writer-director Matt Brown adapted from a biography, is too self-serious to mine that dynamic for laughs.
Instead, the relationship between Hardy (Jeremy Irons), an esteemed Cambridge mathematician, and Ramanujan (Dev Patel), a poor, uneducated Indian who’s nonetheless gifted with numbers, at times feels painfully contrived. Ramanujan’s academic journey begins in the former Indian city of Madras in 1914. Because he lives in slum conditions—and dresses like it—Ramanujan struggles to find work despite presenting to employers volumes of notebooks bursting with advanced equations.
Ramanujan finally lands a position as an accountant, earning enough to bring his mother and wife to live with him. From where, it’s unclear. But you wouldn’t be faulted for guessing North America, because they both speak English. In fact, so do Ramanujan’s supervisors. In 1914 India. Considering Ramanujan was self-taught and so bright, you can maybe suspend adequate belief to accept that he learned English somewhere along the way, too. That all the characters are at the very least bilingual—um, except for the Cambridge lads—already renders the film lazy.
Regardless, one of Ramanujan’s bosses sees the potential in the young man’s scribblings and connects him with Professor Hardy, the Trinity College fellow to whom all his fellow fellows bow. After some stiff exposition, he reaches out to Ramanujan and arranges to bring him to Cambridge, where the wunderkind will largely be ignored, mocked, or otherwise antagonized—even occasionally by Hardy, whom Irons subtly embodies as the standoffish, analytic yin to Ramanujan’s earnest, faith-embracing yang.
Though there are, in fact, important differences between the two when it comes to their shared passion—specifically, academia’s emphasis on proofs whereas Ramanujan believes his theorems are right based on intuition—the filmmaker chooses to repeatedly hammer Hardy’s atheism into your skull for, of all things, a math-related reason to be revealed later.
Their falling-out begins with a ridiculously heated standoff. Patel, who probably wouldn’t be known stateside if not for Danny Boyle casting him in 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, doesn’t do pissed off all that well, and Ramanujan’s panting outburst to an issue that’s not remotely personal turns it so. Yes, he was bullied and discriminated against because of his ethnicity. But he somehow connects it to Hardy’s insistence that he work on proofs: “Don’t you even see the bruises on my face?” he says before adding, seemingly from a different discussion, “I have a wife, Mr. Hardy.” Exit scene. What?
Brown also weaves in some issues between mother and daughter-in-law that are shallow and superfluous, though one detail drums up some conflict. Otherwise, The Man Who Knew Infinity descends into a tooth-achingly sweet portrait of a “Is the student actually the teacher?”-type friendship, with a disease-of-the-week subplot as a bonus. The film telegraphs everything from when blood will first appear on a handkerchief to whether the Trinity jerks will finally accept Ramanujan or if Hardy will second-guess his long-held beliefs. The story may be about absolutes, but the storytelling didn’t have to follow such a predestined path.
The Man Who Knew Infinity opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row.