You think you know how the world works. You think this material universe is all there is. What if I told you the reality you know is one of many?
The Dr. Strange comics could only have come out in the 60’s. They unabashedly combined New Age style mysticism with Steve Ditko’s psychedelic artwork conveying surrealistic worlds that seemed to come from the mind of Salvador Dali. Which is why it’s only right and proper that Dr. Strange, directed by Scott Derrickson (Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) the latest Marvel movie be the trippiest, dippiest, most visually stunning film to date in their lexicon. Much has been made of the way buildings falling into themselves mimics the look of Inception, but we’re also treated to parallel universes whose look and feel is straight out of the old Ditko comics. The effects folks on Doctor Strange should clean up at the Oscars this year, and this is the rare movie that really does justify the cost of seeing it in IMAX 3D.
The plotline itself is a little skimpy with Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock and The Imitation Game) a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon whose hands are ruined in an accident. After Western medicine fails him, he spends his last penny on a ticket to Nepal to seek a cure at an ancient temple where he becomes an expert in the mystical arts. A cocky jerk getting taken down a few pegs only to rise to heroism in the third act is a song Marvel’s played for us many times before.
Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch
Still even if it’s familiar ground in terms of character arcs, Strange’s training sequence at Kamar-Taj is a lot of fun. While playing an insufferable genius is second nature to Cumberbatch at this point, he shows an unexpected penchant for physical humor especially when he grapples with the cloak of power. Benedict Wong of Prometheus and The Martian is great as Wong the Temple’s stern-faced, badass librarian. Casting Tilda Swinton, a white woman, as The Ancient One, a character of Asian persuasion in the comics, was controversial, but there’s no doubt she brings a lot of energy and nuance to her scenes. And Rachel McAdams is quite charming and empathetic as Strange’s ex-lover Cristine whom he pushes away. Sadly there isn’t enough of her, just as you wish Mads Mikkleson as the main baddie had more to do than look suitably menacing while delivering speeches. (Though he does in fact look very menacing and his delivery is great.)
But the real standout of the cast may be Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, 12 Years a Slave) as Mordo a militant fellow sorcerer and pupil to Strange.
Warning! May contain spoilers from here on out.
Mordo is a man of incredible strength and principle but also deeply rigid. Watching his ideals and beliefs conflict with sometimes morally murky and always messy reality is in some ways the real character arc of the film. One which leaves tantalizing possibilities for the future. Marvel movies may finally get another interesting villain besides Loki. And in fact Dr. Strange may soon be meeting Loki.
Photos courtesy of Marvel/Disney
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.