The Man Who Knew Infinity (★★★½) is a pleasantly surprising film.
The story of an unlikely collaboration between a poor, Indian prodigy (Dev Patel) and the Cambridge academic who recognizes his genius (Jeremy Irons) is fraught with enough heavy-handed situations to weigh down three movies. But easy, likable performances from Patel and Irons keep the film from becoming too labored.
Let’s start with Patel, who is, I think, seriously undervalued as an actor. Like another of my favorite thespians, Keira Knightley, Patel is as interesting to watch when his character is not speaking as when he is reciting dialogue. This quality of attentive listening allows simple exchanges to have deeper emotional resonances than they might if they were hurried. Take two exchanges from early in the movie as examples:
— “I was told you like numbers more than people.”
— “Some. Not you.”
“– “Do you promise to bring me as soon as you are able?”
The first is a typical biographical movie exchange, designed to tell us something about the character by having someone describe him or her. Yet rather than underlining the theme by having Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar insist on his love, the script allows Patel to simply assert it as a postulate. This strikes me as correct both culturally and professionally. A voice-over from the British Academic calls Ramanujan “Romantic,” but that is about projecting the feelings he evokes in the Brits. In math, Ramanujan stifles against having to make painstaking “proofs,” insisting instead that he knows intuitively that his intuitions are correct. Such a mind might have a hard time when called upon to show personal devotion. My point being, more actorly scripts would encourage verbal expressions of emotion since that is what lazy audiences are more accustomed to. The early reserve here gives Patel something to hold back so that when he is later called upon to have an eruption of feeling (like throwing his papers against a wall in disgust) it has a little more dramatic effect than it might if his character were always expressing his feelings.
Jeremy Irons plays G. H. Hardy as someone who is progressive by cultural standards and yet not without blind spots regarding his own privilege and status. It is a tricky balance, since the specific setting invites parallels between the professional exploitation of students and the political exploitation of other races and nations. Here again, less is more, and it takes a skilled actor to refrain from expressing the sorts of volatile objections to the injustices that would likely make audiences feel better in the moment but would not be true to the emotional palette of the film.
Much of the film’s poignancy comes from the relentlessness of the oppressive environment that Ramanujan finds himself in and the way it credibly shows how what he thought would be a temporary disruption to his life becomes prolonged. A good example of this is a scene after Ramanujan is beaten by racist soldiers. When he bitterly protests that Hardy has either not noticed or not commented on the bruises on his face, his professor doesn’t profusely apologize or give much quarter. It’s easy to discount obstacles when they are someone else’s.
The surface conflicts of The Man Who Knew Infinity are rote and familiar. An underdog perseveres in the face of prejudice and circumstance to triumph. Yet the execution of the story, because of its cultural setting, is a bit more nuanced. Specifically, while the racial and national politics are a reminder of a more regressive time, it is actually refreshing and challenging to see people professing different religious beliefs support and collaborate with one another.
Hardy professes Atheism. Ramanujan says an equation “had no meaning” to him “unless it expressed a thought of God.” It’s hard for me to see this relationship between Atheist professor and religious student and not digress into a point-by-point comparison with the contemporary “Christian” film, God’s Not Dead. Let me settle for just one striking contrast. Unlike the Pure Flix film, The Man Who Knew Infinity insists that those with different theologies arrived at them sincerely, and has them hold on to them even in the face of opposition. Because it is Ramanujan’s movie, it might be tilted slightly in his direction, but Hardy’s Atheism is certainly portrayed as being more tolerant and progressive than whatever worldview informs the colonialism and racism that informs a few of his colleagues.
But then neither does the film throw Christianity under the bus, allowing only the Hindu to be sincere. Toby Jones’s J. E. Littlewood is presented as a Christian whose commitment to truth and duty informs his politics. He fights in a war that the Atheists (Hardy and Bertrand Russell) remain aloof from. (For more thoughts on the film’s representation of Atheism, be sure to check out Andrew Spitznas’s Secular Cinephile.) Whereas Hardy pushes Ramanujan to make proofs, Littlewood does the painstaking work of disproving one of the prodigy’s theories in order to demonstrate that one’s absolute faith and conviction in an idea isn’t evidence of its truth. Yet even after playing devil’s advocate, Littlewood keeps the faith in the instrument of inspiration. One of the film’s truly remarkable and edifying qualities is the way it shows all three men subordinating their faith in what is true to the pursuit of the discovery and illumination of truth.
The Man Who Knew Infinity opens on May 13 at the Rialto Theater in Raleigh.