In another life, I might have been a mathematician; in part, because I prefer to contemplate my universe in solitude, but perhaps more importantly, because there is a simplicity and elegance in math that simply cannot be matched by any other discipline.
It is the voice of God. It is the description of all existence and all possibility.
Thus, I greatly look forward to films like The Man Who Knew Infinity, which opened at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and this past week on Netflix.
Based on true events, it is much like A Beautiful Mind, in that it tells the story of a man who could see things intuitively that others could not even with the greatest of effort, but in this case, without the mental health issues.
Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a poor mathematician living in Madras, India, burdened with an overwhelming fountain of knowledge and understanding of the maths. As one movie character so aptly put it, every positive integer is Ramanujan’s friend.
Frustrated by an oppressive society in India that sees him as an over-reaching Wog, Ramanujan reaches out with the aid of an understanding British diplomat to mathematicians in the United Kingdom. And he eventually catches the notice Cambridge University professor G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), who brings Ramanujan to England.
As exciting as this is for the younger man, Ramanujan quickly becomes frustrated with his mentor. Rather than explore the mathematical cosmos, Hardy reins Ramanujan in, forcing him to develop mathematical proofs for his grand visions. Why, the younger man asks, do you need to prove the truth, the very word of the gods?
It is in answering this question that the movie becomes a love story between two driven men. These men change the face of mathematics, their work echoing to this day.
Despite the title of the film, this movie is more about Hardy than it is Ramanujan, who interestingly remains something of a mystery even into the story’s epilogue.
Intellectually brilliant in his own right, Hardy yet has to work to understand the universe, whereas Ramanujan is “given” the answers to great mathematical concepts. And despite any overt signs of jealousy, you have to wonder if this isn’t part of the reason Hardy fights so hard to rein in his mentee.
That said, as their relationship slowly blooms, Hardy risks his own expulsion from the college to push for Ramanujan’s acceptance at Cambridge as a fellow. So again, it is about Hardy’s relationships with his colleagues and the university establishment with Ramanujan as his raison d’etre.
The movie is visually beautiful and the story amazingly told.
Irons continues to be an actor of outstanding elegance no matter how curmudgeonly the character. His portrayal of a man who achingly wants to reach out to touch the face of God and yet cannot, is emotionally wrenching. This is a man who is afraid to believe in anything, but is presented with a glory that comes but once in a lifetime.
Patel, likewise, offers a stirring performance. His confusion at the insanity of the world around him is palpable. He knows that he stands upon a great mountain, spouting the wisdoms of heaven, and yet finds himself spat upon and held back. He is very much a Christ figure to Irons’ Saul of Tarsus.
But as beautiful as this film is, I found it lacking in one very big way.
I never felt like I got to understand the titular character Ramanujan.
I have not read the similarly titled book on which the movie is based to know if there is more about Ramanujan there (its subtitle would suggest yes), but the film starts with fully formed Ramanujan scraping mathematical formulas on the stone floor of a temple. In looking for work to support his mother and new bride, he presents his efforts to bureaucrat after bureaucrat, only to be rejected.
What is never explored or explained, however, is how this supposedly lowly man learned how to write in the language of mathematics, and because of this, I feel like I watched only part two of a much larger story.
There is a beautiful moment late in the film between Ramanujan and Hardy that touches on the divine spark of mathematics, and we see the two men finally express their common love and fears. But for me, this wasn’t enough. It fulfilled an emotional requirement, but not the intellectual. I want to better understand Ramanujan and his gift.
Despite this rather large gap, however, this is a movie that I could watch again and again for its sheer beauty. And I can only hope that it just one of many such films—math-centric or otherwise—to be made in the coming years.