Film Reviews

THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY

By • Jun 1st, 2016 •

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I am not a mathematician : I am an actor.
People say to me “How can you remember all those lines?”.
But I have another criterion for how I first create a character role: I instinctively intuit in my imagination who that person IS.

This gives me a glimpse into, a glimmer of, the mind of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the man who encompassed Infinity.

He was a self taught Brahmin Tamil who lived in poverty in South India, with a genius gift for divining astonishingly complex mathematical formulas seeming almost magical in their breadth of implication, and as if delivered to him complete: he simply saw the whole thing, like Mozart heard a whole symphony in his head before he had ever written down a note.

The movie tells the story of the relationship which developed when Ramanujan sent a 9 page letter to G.H. Hardy, the leading mathematician at Trinity College, Cambridge. It was filled with a wealth of his formulas, in hopes that they could be published. The letter caused a sensation among the academic elite. Hardy invited Ramanujan to Cambridge to collaborate with him on pinning down the Proofs which would now justify the Conclusions which the Indian scholar had instinctively established. Hardy later called this “the one romantic incident in my life” : a shared passion for the art of mathematics; but conflicted by the fact that each was motivated by opposite energies. The Westerner refused to believe in anything that he could not prove, including God. The man from the East believed that an equation held no meaning unless it was as if an expression of a thought of God.

This was not the only conflict. The arrival of this brilliant but unsophisticated Indian into the hallowed halls of Cambridge academe on the eve of the first World War revealed all the social snobbery of the period, manifest by an incredulous disbelief that such mind-blowing wisdom could be the property of so inconspicuous and unlikely a person as Srinivasa Ramanujan. He must be a fraud, and Hardy must be a madman. The intellectual thriller aspect is the tale of the tortuous struggle of Ramanujan to hammer out the convenient proofs, and the dire toll it takes on his health, this spiritual exile in so foreign a land. The hard won prize is his final acceptance as a Fellow of Trinity College, as an equal, a peer and, as time has passed, a visionary prophet of ideas.

The film has a wealth of telling character studies. Dev Patel has the role of his career as Ramanujan, and shows he is an actor who can write out (verbatim) a long equation onto a blackboard even more deftly than he can manage a colorful hotel. Jeremy Irons is Hardy, who narrates the story, and brings a heart-felt depth to a detached man who discovers how to be personal. The world of Trinity, and the shattering changes wrought by the war as the quad becomes a field hospital, is also inhabited by the fellow mathematician, and later infantry officer, J.E. Littlewood (Toby Jones): Jeremy Northam as Bertram Russell contributes his ironic commentary on events. Ramanujan does eventually return to India and is reunited with his beautiful wife (Devika Bhise), though he is already ill with the TB which soon ends his life. But his ideas and insights remain very much alive to this day. His visions of the future inspire work in computer development, in economics, and in the study of black holes.

I found the film thrilling. I enjoyed the story, yes. But what I like about it is the way in which it shows how Science and Art are not worlds apart – they are as close as two sides of the same coin. Imagination, the revelations seen in the mind’s eye, inspired Einstein, and the physicist Peter Higgs of boson fame, Marie Curie, Nash of the “beautiful mind”, also Shakespeare and Blake and Plath and Akhmatova, Beethoven and Shostakovich, Burbage and Bernhardt, Kahlo and Rembrandt, Alan Turing and Srinivasa Ramanujan. Scientists, mathematicians and musicians, writers and artists and actors and all. These are my Action heroines and heroes. I am glad when I see a movie about one of them – I only wish there were more.

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