Chem­istry adds to math­e­mat­ics’ al­lure

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

(PG) As num­bers mat­ter a lot in The Man Who Knew In­fin­ity, it’s worth not­ing this el­e­gant film about In­dian math­e­mat­i­cal ge­nius Srini­vasa Ra­manu­jan took 10 years to make it to the screen. But then 10 is a man­age­able num­ber com­pared with those the un­e­d­u­cated, Madras­born Ra­manu­jan loved, fought and con­quered. His con­tri­bu­tion to the field stands the test of time, al­most 100 years since his pre­ma­ture death in 1920, aged just 32.

Math­e­mat­ics is a mys­tery to many peo­ple, in­clud­ing me, yet film­mak­ers know its strange­ness can en­liven a char­ac­ter and carry a story. Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunt­ing (1997), in which Ra­manu­jan is men­tioned in pass­ing, is one well in the plus col­umn, as is Ron Howard’s A Beau­ti­ful Mind (2001) and more re­cently the cryp­tol­ogy thriller The Im­i­ta­tion Game and Stephen Hawk­ing bio-drama The The­ory of Ev­ery­thing. I’m also fond of Robert Con­nolly’s The Bank (2001), in which David Wen­ham is a math­e­ma­ti­cian able to ma­nip­u­late the stock mar­ket. So we per­haps don’t need to hear Ber- trand Rus­sell (jovially played by Jeremy Northam) at the out­set of this film to bring us on board, but as it turns out the quote is a telling one: “Math­e­mat­ics, rightly viewed, pos­sesses not only truth, but supreme beauty.”

The main story is Ra­manu­jan’s five years at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge, where he works on and pub­lishes his ground­break­ing the­o­ries.

In­dia is un­der Bri­tish rule, World War I is around the cor­ner and peo­ple high and low do not treat this man like a hu­man be­ing, let alone a ge­nius. How dare he ar­gue with Bri­tish think­ing? The racism is edgy and be­liev­able.

When still in Chen­nai, Ra­manu­jan says to a friend, “The Bri­tish think I am a rav­ing lu­natic”, the friend replies, “So do the In­di­ans.” He leaves be­hind a ner­vous wife and a con­trol­ling mother.

Ra­manu­jan is in­vited to Cam­bridge af­ter writ­ing let­ters to math­e­mat­ics pro­fes­sor GH Hardy, an un­usual, soli­tary don who mainly sticks to the rules but thinks the young man’s work may change the uni­verse. Ra­manu­jan is played by the earnest, en­dear­ing Dev Pa­tel ( Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire) and Hardy is su­perbly in­hab­ited by Jeremy Irons, in one of his best per­for­mances.

The chem­istry be­tween the two is thrilling in a frac­tured way. Shy Hardy rarely looks any­one in the eye, yet he sees some­thing in his pro­tege that makes him feel more hu­man. “I owe more to him than to any­one else in the world,” he says at one point. Never mar­ried, he also de­scribes their work­ing re­la­tion­ship as “the one ro­man­tic in­ci­dent of my life”. Irons brings su­perb fragility to this re­moved, re­silient char­ac­ter, in a way that took me back to his younger time at the other univer­sity, Ox­ford, in the mas­ter­piece television se­ries Brideshead Re­vis­ited.

The story be­comes an in­tel­lec­tual skir­mish be­tween Ra­manu­jan and Hardy and the lat­ter’s blood­ier bat­tle with the univer­sity hi­er­ar­chy. Hardy has de­cent al­lies in Rus­sell (‘‘Wel­come to our lit­tle asy­lum,” is how he greets Ra­manu­jan) and John Lit­tle­wood (Toby Jones).

I knew noth­ing about Ra­manu­jan and will keep it that way here, as view­ers who do not will find the plot riv­et­ing. It’s an old-fash­ioned En- glish his­tor­i­cal drama, and I say that with high praise. Writ­ten and di­rected by Matthew Brown, it’s based on a 1991 book of the same name by Robert Kanigel. (An­other book that may in­ter­est if you like this film is David Leav­itt’s 2007 novel The In­dian Clerk.) The script is in­tel­li­gent and sharp, full of se­ri­ous­ness and hu­mour. When Hardy ad­vises that he is an athe­ist, Ra­man­jun replies, “You be­lieve in God; you just don’t think he likes you.’’ I can’t say any­thing in­formed about the maths, but the fact two high-pro­file math­e­ma­ti­cians, Man­jul Bhar­gava and Ken Ono, are on board as ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers means it prob­a­bly adds up. Coin­ci­den­tally, racism to­wards In­di­ans also oc­curs in Mother’s Day, the re­lease of which is timed for that mem­o­rable day to­mor­row. Whether you want to take your mother to see it is some­thing only you can know. The racism hap­pens be­cause one of the char­ac­ters, Jesse (Kate Hud­son), is mar­ried to an In­dian doc­tor, which hor­ri­fies her mo­tor-home-driv­ing par­ents when they find out. They call him tow­el­head — but that is mild com­pared with the re­ac­tion on learn­ing their other daugh­ter, Gabi (Sarah Chalke), is mar­ried but not to a man.

It’s sup­posed to be com­i­cally con­trived racism and sex­ism but it just isn’t funny and feels un­com­fort­able. Hav­ing said that, this third an­niver­sary-day in­stal­ment di­rected by vet­eran

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