Film Review: The Man Who Knew Infinity

Posted in Reviews, Top Stories by - May 16, 2016
Film Review: The Man Who Knew Infinity

Back in the ‘90s, Mattel got in trouble for a speaking Barbie that declared “math is hard.” While I don’t encourage a doll that tells girls to avoid math, I knew what that doll felt like – math is hard. And, quite often, boring. So why did I want to see a movie about a math genius? Because it’s awesome.

The story contained in The Man Who Knew Infinity goes beyond simple math. It’s about fighting for what you know is right and proving that, even without an education, some people can still be brilliant. The movie follows Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar, portrayed by Dev Patel, from the town of Madras, India on his journey to Cambridge University in England at the beginning of WWI. Iyengar has had no true formal education, yet his mathematical theories are advanced and beyond what the educated men at the university have discovered for themselves.

When Iyengar arrives in England, he has to face the biases that many held against Indians. Thought to be more primitive, less intelligent, and less worthy than his English peers, he is forced to fight through a system that would prefer to abuse and ignore him than even consider his life’s work. At the same time, he must fight against the beliefs of his family back home in India, including his wife and mother who do not understand what he’s doing.

Iyengar’s relationship with G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) is filled with tension, with Hardy being both mentor and clueless Englishman who doesn’t understand that intuition is just as important as knowledge to Iyengar. Their rocky and sometimes contentious interactions provide a way for the audience to experience the rough road of early 20 th century academia.

The movie’s backdrops of India and England are beautiful and detailed. They capture the world at the time, showing a blend of modern and old-world values, morals, and dress. It goes beyond the simple and superficial and uses some small but powerful scenes to show how the world affected the people. One of the shortest but extremely moving scenes happens when Iyengar tries to buy vegetables since the dining room seems to serve only meat or vegetables cooked in lard. Because of the war, vegetables are in demand, and Igenyar get stuck with a measly batch that, when cooked over his small fire, he spits out. It could be seen as a trivial moment, but it is a strong reminder of the life that he had entered and how different and difficult it is for him to adapt.

The greatest weakness of the film is in the lack of details given about the math being done. I know I’m not a fan of math, but I walked away from the film not really understanding exactly what was so innovative and important about Iyengar’s work. From the film, I could tell it was worthy and groundbreaking, but if asked to explain why, I would be at a loss. The actors are all well fitted to their roles and provide a strong support for the story. Stephen Fry as Sir Francis Spring, the head of the accounts house in Madras, has a minor role but an important one, being one of the first British men to give Iyengar a start and a chance. Toby Jones as Hardy’s friend Littlewood, also plays a pivotal role, with his urging on Hardy to accept and work with Iyengar but never forget the academic basis for the work.

Overall, Matt Brown’s film did a fantastic job showing an important part of history from both the human and academic perspectives. Even for those who believe that math is a hard and unnecessary part of any curriculum, the passion and love shown by Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons will overcome anyone’s reticence and make them feel the inspiration felt by Iyengar and Hardy.

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