An equation means nothing to me unless it expresses a thought of God.
The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the unlikely story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a basically uneducated clerk in India who found his way to Trinity College in the years just prior to 1920 due to a strange, intuitive understanding of incredibly advanced mathematics. The film is very much a standard biopic; it doesn’t do much of anything really innovative with the form and this does kind of start to get a little dull in the second half of the film. But the performances do a lot to elevate the film. Dev Patel, a really fine & charismatic actor who is unfortunately hindered by his ethnicity, gives a really solid performance in the lead and Jeremy Irons is . . . better than he’s been in a few years, I’d say, as mathematician G.H. Hardy, the English professor who befriends and works with Ramanujan during his time at Trinity. Toby Stephensis quite good in a supporting role as a likeable colleague of Hardy’s and Jeremy Northam gives a very naturalistic performance as Bertrand Russell, though he’s quite underused. And then there’s a wonderful performance by Devika Bhise as Ramanujan’s wife, struggling with being left behind in India; it could easily be a totally thankless role and it’s pretty underwritten, but Bhise is really incredibly good and I hope to see more from her in the future (she gets an “introducing” credit here, so presumably she’s early in her career). The first half of the film is quite compelling and entertaining, but the film starts to drag once it really begins to hit all the standard biopic beats, though the performances keep the film from ever really becoming bad or completely dull. The film does a good job at balancing the wondrous incomprehensibility of higher maths with occasionally giving us something to hold on to. Ramanujan sees his equations as art and when you see the incredibly long, utterly incomprehensible formulas he writes out, there’s a kind of awe in seeing them and in not understanding them. But the film takes a beat and has Hardy explain the principle of partitions to his secretary in a “no, look, even you can understand this” moment that feels incredibly organic and so as you see Ramanujan and Hardy work toward cracking the partition formula, a mathematical problem thought to be impossible, the “rabbit hole of the universe,” in Hardy’s words, it has real weight and energy. All in all, I found it to be a warm, sincere biopic, buoyed substantially by a stellar cast, all fully committed. The script could be better and I should just mention that the score is pretty sappy and almost continuous. Not a world-shaker, but a pleasant enough watch, certainly if you’re at all interested in Patel or Irons as performers. 3 stars.
tl;dr – film leans on standard biopic clichés more heavily than it should, but a cast of committed performers buoy the film with their performances; likable, if not always compelling. 3 stars.