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"Nothing about this film is fresh": The Man Who Knew Infinity - review

May 5, 2016 Film & TV

How would you make a great film about a mathematical genius? Perhaps stand well back and show the challenges non-mathematical minds experience when they attempt intimacy with someone whose thoughts are in many ways beyond them? That would not be a film about maths; plug any form of genius into the story and it would not change much.

Perhaps through inspired use of visualisation? Show us the abstract forms rising up out of everyday objects; show us that great minds see things we don’t. Vanishingly few films even attempt this, presumably because it’s so difficult to do.

Instead we get chocolate-box trash like The Man Who Knew Infinity. “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty,” reads the on-screen epigraph. The quote is from Bertrand Russell, one of the most interesting and original minds of the 20th century. Or, as he appears here, a wry-faced dispenser of oracular quips: a familiar supporting character in a cast full of familiar characters. Nothing about this film is fresh.

Dev Patel is Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self-taught Indian prodigy who blew into Cambridge a century ago. Patel plays him as a dewy-eyed innocent, utterly unprepared for the racist sneering, awful weather and closed minds he encounters. Jeremy Irons is his gruff, well-intentioned mentor. These are two fine actors, but writer-director Matt Brown offers them nothing to do other than scribble equations, mouth appallingly flat dialogue, and stand there looking dignified while the score drips tragic melancholy all over them. (You know the story will end sadly before the film is three minutes old, simply from the feel of the music.)

Here’s how that Bertrand Russell line about the beauty of mathematics ends: mathematics is “capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show”. A wiser film-maker might have perceived the warning in these words. I imagine Brown feels he’s rescuing Ramanujan from undeserved obscurity, but what he’s actually doing is burying the memory of a unique mind under a heap of stale narrative clichés.

In NZ cinemas from 5 May.


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