Arts

Proof of life: Biopic The Man Who Knew Infinity just about adds up

Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons star in The Man Who Knew Infinity, Matthew Brown's biopic of tragic mathematics genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. David Roy broke out his critical abacus to watch

GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons) and Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) compare mathematical methods in The Man Who Knew Infinity

THE Man Who Knew Infinity is based on the extraordinary life story of self-taught pure mathematics genius Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Thankfully, director Matthew Brown's heavy-handed, possibly dramatic license-enhanced emphasis on cliched romantic plot points only slightly lessens the impact of the bigger picture at hand, as the sensitive, brilliant Ramanujan (Dev Patel) leaves his new wife Janaki (Devika Bhise), overbearing mother (Arundhati Nag) and humble origins in Madras behind to pursue the numbers swirling around his gifted brain at one of England's most esteemed seats of learning.

The young Indian endures a turbulent, physically and psychologically damaging time at Cambridge University's Trinity College at the dawn of the First World War – not a great time for a non-white to be visiting England's green and pleasant land, as it turns out.

Held in contempt by the stuffy Cambridge establishment by dint of his ethnicity and lack of formal education, only socially awkward number cruncher GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons) and his maths-wrangling genial genius of an academic partner John Littlewood (Toby Jones) make time for Ramanujan.

Yet, despite being impressed enough by theories shared via postal correspondence to invite him over to England, even Hardy is determined to bend this gifted given game-changer to the will of the Cambridge machine.

Ramanujan's frighteningly brilliant mind enables him to realise impossibly complex mathematical theorems without the hours upon hours of painstaking 'show your work'-style proofing, but such outside-the-box thinking is apparently not the stuff of Cambridge Fellows.

As a result, Hardy is reluctant to risk his own reputation by standing over his Indian guest's theorems while they remain unaccompanied by the necessary interstitial computations.

The Man Who Knew Infinity plays best when it avoids getting bogged down in the distraction of its subject's long distance relationship – which, sadly, repeatedly intrudes on the much more interesting business of getting to know his untamed, untrained intellect.

It comes to life whenever Brown lets Irons and Patel spark off each other, as Hardy's cranky, atheistic stickler for mathematical detail attempts to wrangle the wide-eyed and deeply religious Ramanujan away from his reliance on an numerical intuition he attributes to divine guidance.

Irons expertly inhabits this oddball academic whose rather cold, plummy exterior masks a caring, loyal core which comes to the fore when he's around close colleagues and confidantes such as Littlewood, Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam) and, eventually, Ramanujan himself.

Patel – whose slender, photogenic form is somewhat at odds with the real Ramanujan's appearance – performs a fine balancing act between elated wonderment, grim determination and utter despair as he attempts to flesh out this fantastically gifted yet ultimately tragic figure.

Adapted from the 1991 biography The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel, the film suggests that it was the stress of the mental and physical abuse he endured at Cambridge which caused a prolonged spell of ill health that eventually blossomed into a full-blown terminal illness.

The truth of the matter is somewhat more complex, but it's still difficult to watch Ramanujan's health and spirit withering in the face of continual challenges to his beautiful, brilliant mind.

As history reflects, the Cambridge elite were wrong to doubt him – mostly. While Hardy's insistence on proofing caught some errors in his prodigy's instinctively realised work, the Indian really did come up with several brand new and hugely important mathematical theorems.

Indeed, his notes now reside under glass in the Trinity College library alongside those of its other great alumnus, Sir Isaac Newton.

While not quite the brilliant biopic its subject probably deserves, The Man Who Knew Infinity still adds up to a compelling tale that benefits from a superb turn by Jeremy Irons.

Given a more confidently cerebral treatment, its final value could have even greater.

THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY (12A, 109 mins) Drama/Romance. Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Toby Jones, Devika Bhise, Arundhati Nag, Jeremy Northam, Anthony Calf, Kevin McNally, Padraic Delaney, Stephen Fry. Director: Matthew Brown

RATING: THREE STARS

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