Film Review: The Man Who Knew Infinity

by Aaron Johnstone

Rated PG. Starring Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons. Directed by Matt Brown.

When’s the last time you sat down to solve a complex equation? Or for that matter when was the last time you gave any serious thought to Mathematics? For me, it would have been when I was 17 and in grade 11. I must admit, I’ve always been more passionate about the humanities than maths or science. Yet, watching The Man Who Knew Infinity served as a powerful reminder that numbers are so much more than a tool for planning a weekly budget or calculating the time, but can be a key to unlocking the very fabric of the universe.

Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons star as two of Cambridge’s top mathematicians during the time of the first world war. Although, the story does not begin there. Srinivasa Ramanujan (Patel) lives in India with his recently married wife, along with his family, and is struggling to make ends meet. With the British colony established, Ramanujan, a maths prodigy, lands a job as an accountant, working at a British outpost. His connections and obvious talents allow him the opportunity to try and land at the prestigious University of Cambridge. He sends a letter to the esteemed G. H. Hardy (Irons, aka Scar from the Lion King), the strong voice for ‘pure mathematics’ who is almost immediately compelled to meet this fascinating and unknown character to see if he is legit. Before long Ramanujan leaves his wife (with the hope of bringing her over to England) and family (not so much) in India in the hope of using his ability to the fullest, and ultimately publishing his original mathematical formulas.

Hardy is quickly won over by Ramanujan’s abilities, but senses something lacking. Proof. While Ramanujan can devise the most amazing formulas, he has no patience for showing that these formulas work. So Hardy takes on a mentor role and encourages him to slow down, and prove that these formulas work (much to Ramanujan’s ire). This, coupled with the struggles of a long-distance relationship, culture shock, and poor health leave Ramanujan disillusioned and almost ready to give up.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is an inspiring true story of two completely different characters working through their differences to meet a common goal. Hardy is an unabashed Atheist, devoted to proof, methodology, and the Cambridge life (he is unmarried). While Ramanujan is a practicing Hindu, driven by intuition (he claims his God puts the equations on his tongue), and very aware of the sacrifices he has made to come to Cambridge. Despite their differences, they have great chemistry together, and in time develop a deep friendship.

There are some powerful themes running through the movie, reflecting on spirituality/reality, the language of the universe, friendship, sacrifice, institutions, and innovation. One particularly striking scene is when Ramanujan enters Cambridge for the first time, motionless and in awe of its beauty and heritage. Hardy’s colleague Littlewood (Toby Jones) tells him not to be intimidated, for ‘greatness often comes from humble origins’. Other highlights include the conversations between Hardy and ‘Berty’ (Bertrand Russell played by Jeremy Northam), as well as when Ramanujan cracks the partitions equation – apparently thought to be impossible at the time.

As a Christian I loved the passion that these mathematicians had about numbers. They are beautiful, logical, and ordered, providing consistency and intelligibility in an inconsistent and frustrating world. Ramanujan attributes the form of maths to the divine, the very language of God, and as a Christian I cannot help but think of how God is the God of order and purpose in this world. I also loved the classic underdog story, which of course aligns with the gospel story.

A young unknown man in his 30s is plucked out of obscurity, who had extraordinary abilities, spoke the language of God, and changed the way we understand the universe. It makes me think of Colossians 2:9: ‘For in Christ all the fullness of the deity lives in bodily form’.

The Verdict: The Man Who Knew Infinity is a thoughtful movie that does a great job teasing out the complexities and connections between human relationships, spirituality and the pursuit of knowledge. It also serves as a fitting tribute to the legacy of Srinivasa Ramanujan and G.H. Hardy. 4/5

The Man Who Knew Infinity releases in Australian cinemas on May 5th, and in the USA on April 29th.

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