Maths is a tricky thing to translate into exciting viewing. Watching someone balancing algorithms or messing about with multivariate polynomials just isn’t conducive to urgently shovelling popcorn into your face. Difficult to dislike, given its unwavering affection for its subject, The Man Who Knew Infinity is nevertheless hamstrung by the dryness of its subject, which neither Matthew Brown’s script nor direction can kick into life. Sturdy performances and lovely scenery abound, but it’s still largely just men doing sums; important sums as it turns out, but that isn’t conveyed to the audience until the coda tells us of the major scientific advances they aided.
Dev Patel, a man whose gawky presence and wounded eyes insist you warm to him, plays Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian man of limited education who is blessed with a genius mathematical mind.
Thanks to doggedness and brilliance, he’s invited by Professor G.H. Hardy (Irons) to move to Cambridge and advance his theories alongside other brilliant minds at Trinity College. Leaving behind his new wife, he struggles with a major culture clash, gets beaten up for being different, is charmingly unsophisticated, and ultimately expands the minds of some fusty old racists.
This is, no pun intended, by-the-numbers biopic-making. It’s handsome, revelling in both India’s chaotic colour and Cambridge’s wood-panelled formality, and it tells its story fluently. Yet it lacks any form of surprise. It needs a bit of something to grab onto – some humour in Hardy and Ramanujan’s awkward companionship, or more of a spark between Ramanujan and his wife. We’re told he’s desperate to get back to her, yet when they first part they’re so awkward with each other that they get embarrassed about sharing a bed.
Above all, it needs to better tell us what on earth everyone’s up to. Hardy and Ramanujan clash over the former’s insistence on proof, as is the way of science, and the latter’s belief in the beauty of ideas. As an audience, it’s hard to take a side in this fight without a degree in pure maths. It feels too often like an exam for which we haven’t studied.