The science-focused biopic has emerged as an unlikely subgenre for movies in recent years. The trend reached a late-2014 peak with the release of The Imitation Game (which received eight Oscar nominations), the little-known story of computer science pioneer Alan Turing, and The Theory of Everything (five Oscar nominations), which focuses on the personal life of physics visionary Stephen Hawking.
Smaller in scale but still fitting the bill is The Man Who Knew Infinity, which tells the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan. A largely uneducated Indian mathematician who worked primarily in the World War I era, Ramanujan’s genius was so complete that his ideas still guide the study of black holes, string theory and quantum gravity and inspired recent innovations in computer security.
The Man Who Knew Infinity isn’t especially interested in popularizing Ramanujan as a historical figure. Like The Imitation Game, it uncovers an engaging story known by few outside of academic circles. In the manner of The Theory of Everything, the film dwells on the personal by focusing on Ramanujan’s friendship and collaboration with British mathematician G.H. Hardy, along with the racism and classism Ramanujan suffered while working with Hardy at University of Cambridge. But The Man Who Knew Infinity also targets something all its own: the rarified place where high-level theoretical science blurs the line with artistic achievement and becomes a source of aesthetic beauty, above and beyond its practical applications.
Despite the subject matter, there’s nothing daring or innovative about The Man Who Knew Infinity. Second-time writer/director Matthew Brown works methodically in clear, precise steps that never call attention to the film’s visual style or indie origins. The entire project seems conservative by nature, and there may be nothing more innately conservative than the culture of mathematicians in early-20th century Britain. The film reflects the even temperament of its subjects.
The story begins with a 25-year-old, recently married Ramanujan (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire) desperately searching for work in his homeland, now the Tamil Nadu region at the southern tip of India. He has flunked out of college and lost a scholarship by neglecting all subjects other than math. He sends a sample of his theoretical work to famed mathematician Hardy (Jeremy Irons) and receives an invitation to Cambridge’s prestigious Trinity College, where the apple reportedly fell on Isaac Newton’s head centuries before.
The relationship that develops between Ramanujan and Hardy is largely a distant one. For Ramanujan, an equation only has meaning because it “expresses a thought of God.” Hardy is a confirmed atheist who has little in his life besides mathematics and considers himself no good at personal relationships. He recognizes the singular genius of his protege but must rein him in and teach him to craft the painstaking proofs that will legitimize his imaginative ideas. It’s fertile soil for two talented actors, and both Patel and Irons meet the challenge with fine characterizations.
The Man Who Knew Infinity was shot on location in India and England and was the first film ever granted access to the real Trinity College. Twelve years in the making — reportedly due to the hardships of financing what was perceived as a hopelessly noncommercial film — it lacks the epic sweep of big-budget historical dramas. But the film’s human scale suits the material, and much inspiration can be found in its emphasis on the value of creative vision in a purportedly dry and passionless field of study.
The Man Who Knew Infinity begins an exclusive run at The Broad Theater on Friday, May 13.