Chemistry adds to mathematics’ allure
(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