The Man Who Knew Infinity – Is Genius a Gift from God?
All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing… and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn’t want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent? Antonio Salieri in Amadeus
What makes a genius? Are these individuals born? The result of excellent schools and diligent parents? Or does God bestow on certain people exceptional talents? In Amadeus, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham in his Oscar-winning role), railed against the creator for choosing to bless not him but Mozart with the enviable ability to create music that touched the soul.
In The Man Who Knew Infinity, Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel in a multifaceted performance), is a genius in another field, mathematical formulas gushing forth impressing the best analytical minds at Cambridge. When asked by his mentor, professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), where that inspiration comes from, Ramanujan says from God. Hardy, an atheist, finds it hard to accept that explanation. But what Ramamujan manages to put on paper continues to astound and certainly invites the idea that somehow a deity is involved.
The film takes some liberties from the true story upon which it is based. Ramanujan, an Indian from Madras (now Chennai), had little formal education. Without being able to write on paper, a luxury in his impoverished village, Ramanujan writes his formulas in the few books he possesses as well as with chalk on stones in the temple. Needing to support his wife and mother, he lands a job as an accountant with a condescending British boss (Stephen Fry, in a fleeting appearance), but continues his entreaties to be published by writing to Hardy at Cambridge. Intrigued by the formulas Ramanujan sends, Hardy invites him to England. Thus begins a relationship that will weather discrimination, numerous confrontations with the Cambridge hierarchy, as well as the misery that descends on the country during World War I. Alone in a foreign country, Ramanujan battles loneliness by immersing himself in his work. His letters to his wife, Janaki (Devika Bhise), are intercepted by his mother who resents his marriage. When Ramanujan falls ill with tuberculosis, he believes he has been abandoned by his family with no one but Hardy to come to his aid.
Hardy pushes Ramanujan to show proof of his work, a roadmap explaining how he arrives at his formulas. But Ramanujan’s mind doesn’t work that way. (Any math student who has been chided by a teacher to show the steps rather than just write down the obvious answer will understand Ramanujan’s situation.) Hardy, however, understands the academic hurdles Ramanujan must clear in order to be accepted. In the end, he does just that becoming the second Indian to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and the first Indian Fellow at Trinity. Even today, his calculations are seen as groundbreaking, influencing not only computer development and economics but also the study of black holes.
Patel, whom we know from a string of hits – Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel, as well as HBO’s Newsroom – tackles a more serious role here, portraying Ramanujan’s determination to have the world pay attention to his formulas. But he also displays the mathematician’s vulnerable side. While he’s made it to Cambridge, he’s not accepted by either the students or the professors, spending solitary days and nights in his room, cooking his own inedible meat-free meals. When the Cambridge green is taken over by tents sheltering injured soldiers, Ramanujan finds himself a target by those who resent his presence.
As Hardy, Irons is an academic with a cause. Hardy plays by the rules, but isn’t afraid to thwart those rules for Ramanujan recognizing the young man’s talents. Irons benefits with support from Toby Jones as J.E. Littlewood and Jeremy Northman as Bertrand Russell. The trio form an alliance to advance Ramanujan’s cause.
Films focusing on math – A Beautiful Mind and The Imitation Game – have defied the odds and done well with theater audiences. The Man who Knew Infinity may not rise to that level, particularly in the run up to summer movies when superheroes dominate. Yet geniuses are superheroes, brilliant minds that raise the bar and continue to wield influence. Chances are after seeing this film, you will find ourself launching into discussions about the genius factor and which individuals have earned that distinction.
The Man Who Knew Infinity opens nationwide May 6, 2016.