“The Man Who Knew Infinity” is a standard-issue, overcoming-the-odds bio-pic.
The hero must rise above poverty, a lack of education, racism and cultural guilt to reach the pinnacle in his field.
The twist here is that this time, our hero isn’t a haunted musician, tormented ballplayer or tortured artist. He’s good with numbers.
Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) plays Srinivasa Ramanujan, a struggling amateur mathematician in Madras who considers himself lucky to land a job as a clerk to a British engineer just before World War I.
It is not the Brit (Stephen Fry) who sees “great potential” in the young man, but the Indian (Dhritiman Chatterjee) who hired him. He will clerk during the day, and “explain your theorems to me,” complex and novel, to his supervisor after work.
Ramanujan is newly married to the illiterate but supernaturally beautiful Janika (Devika Bhise) and must take care of his overbearing, superstitious mother, who lives with them as well.
But Ramanujan has these numbers in his head, these Big Ideas he simply must get out. They “must not die with me.” No degree, living in a backwater of the British Raj, “I’m doomed, like Galileo.”
He must publish or he most certainly will perish.
Yes, he’s a bit sure of himself. That’s why he writes to the great Trinity College don G.H. Hardy in Cambridge. Sending a sample of his work gets him an invitation. The Indian among Academics invites skepticism and racism. The vicious ones call him “a little wog,” and even the more tolerant can’t help themselves.
“Don’t let it ruin your meeting with Gunga Din.”
But Hardy, played by Jeremy Irons with a minimum of eye contact and an Asperger’s/Autism Spectrum layer of anti-sociability, isn’t dissuaded. He and his favorite colleague, Littlewood (Toby Jones) will train and give the Indian prodigy some discipline to go with his brilliant intuition.
The obstacles hurled in the way of Ramanujan include the racist hostility of the college establishment, the dismissal of the Royal Society, a meddling ninny of a mother, the hoary melodrama cliche “the bloody handkerchief,” and World War I.
Patel, who is piling up impressive credits, makes a reliably earnest too-focused young man. Irons smokes and pontificates and rails against injustice. Jones provides the tiniest bit of levity, Fry is given nothing to do and assorted lesser known players take on the utterly generic villain roles.
The glory in Matt Brown’s film is the odd moment of discovery — not mathematical, but romantic, such as when Janika learns that her husband has left behind marks which she doesn’t understand yet make her feel closer to him while he is in England.
The problem with the movie is it all feels like something we’ve seen before, many times before. The novelties aren’t outweighed by the dramatic tropes, characters and plot contrivances we recognize for their function if not their actual role in this piece of history most of us don’t know.
That over-familiarity, and the simple fact that math is awfully hard to dramatize, undercuts “The Man Who Knew Infinity” just as surely as any jealous, racist mathematician who stands in the hero’s way, a classic bio-picture “type” we know too well to expect him to actually foil our hero in the end.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements and smoking
Cast: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Toby Jones, Stephen Fry, Devika Bhise
Credits: Written and directed by Matt Brown, based on the Robert Kanigel biography. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:48