Wednesday 27 April 2016

Film: 'The Man Who Knew Infinity'

Heavily sentimental, unexceptional film, based on true story of young Indian mathematics prodigy, S. Ramanujan, of whom I'd not heard, though feel I ought to have - with Dev Patel ('Slumdog Millionaire', the 'Marigold Hotel' films) in the main role. It focusses on his cerebral achievements and fight for recognition at Cambridge University. before his premature death from T.B. at just 32. It's a film that is very near a hagiography, with the young man having the forbearance of a saint in tolerating the condescension, the sneering, and even the racial epithets openly hurled at him, one particularly shockingly by one of his own professors in class, as well as his being attacked in the street. All this happens against the background of the outbreak of World War I.

Ramanujan hails from Madras (now Chennai), India, his job being a lowly clerk, when his boss, grudgingly recognising his prodigious mental abilities, along with colonialist incumbent Stephen Fry (in little more than a cameo role), refers him to Cambridge University to where he's then invited by Maths prof, Hardy -  a pacifist/atheist (the latter mentioned too many times, methinks), played by Jeremy Irons, with his academic colleague Toby Jones, as well as Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell. (I've seen as many films featuring Jeremy Irons in the last few weeks as I have in the last ten years. He's suddenly all over the place, though in this film he's given his most substantial part in decades, probably having as much screen time as Patel himself.) 
Travelling to England means that Ramanujan has to leave his young wife and mother behind, his extended absence unsurprisingly giving rise to marital tensions by letter.

Despite the subject's near-miraculous mathematical abilities, little attempt is made in this film to illustrate what it entailed by showing us examples. What I did gather is that it related to equations involving prime numbers, and that he claimed to have discovered what was something of a 'Holy Grail', which had evaded all mathematicians up to then. Needless to say, the University's brains, Irons included up to a point, remain stubbornly sceptical, especially in the light of Ramanujan's racial and humble origins.

I found the subject's relentless saintly qualities hard to take, though it might well have been the truth as far as I know. I can't imagine admirers of the man complaining at the uncritical treatment he's given here. But true or not, I was particularly annoyed by frequently present background music, always in sentimental mode, and at least once supported by a 'heavenly choir', for crying out loud! Far from enhancing what was happening on screen, for me it detracted from it, his decline and succumbing to the illness that eventually killed him bestowing the final seal of martyrdom upon his short life. However, apparently even today his accomplishments and fame live on in academic circles.

This seems to be Matt Brown's first feature as director, and he really indulges himself here, but too much on the mushy side for me.   

I'm not sure the Ramanujan's memory is particularly well served by this one-dimensional portrayal. Certainly, if you are not put off by this treacle-ish treatment you will probably have greater appreciation for this film than I could muster...................5.


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