Thursday, May 12, 2016

Are all geniuses created equal?

The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the story of an Indian math whiz who encounters the British establishment.

The less familiar you are with the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the more likely you are enjoy The Man Who Knew Infinity, the story of an Indian mathematical genius who was forced -- because of deeply embedded British racism -- to beat his head against the wall of Great Britain's academic establishment.

Director Matt Brown opts for prestige, hallowed-halls packaging with a cast that features Dev Patel, as Ramanujan, and Jeremy Irons, as G.H. Hardy, an established mathematician who insists that Ramanujan provide proofs of his discoveries.

The movie's most interesting thematic wrinkle centers on the difference between two approaches to mathematics -- Ramanujan's intuitive grasp of mind-bending theories -- and Hardy's more dogged, academically respectable plodding. Hardy isn't entirely dismissive of intuition, but he also believes in dotting every "i" and crossing every "t."

As played by Dev Patel, Ramanujan claims to be channeling information about the universe from God. Hardy seems to view Ramanujan's approach as a form of unacceptable romanticism.

Gradually, Hardy comes to respect Ramanujan and lobbies for his admittance to the inner circle of recognized mathematicians who have done significant work at Trinity College.

Mostly set in the early 1900s, the movie emphatically underscores the bigotry that once pervaded British academic circles. Few of Trinity's dons believe that an otherwise uneducated Indian from Madras could develop ground-breaking proofs on his own.

When we first meet Ramanujan, he's a 25-year-old shipping clerk with a wife (Devika Bhise) who he must leave behind when he travels to England. The difficulties of this long-distance relationship are exacerbated by Ramanujan's overly possessive mother. She hides the letters her son lovingly writes to his bride.

Irons makes Hardy's insistence on playing by well-established academic rules credible, but Patel has difficulty getting beyond the trademark avidity he has been bringing to the screen since he appeared in Slumdog Millionaire.

The movie derives added tension from a social and personal question: Can Ramanujan retain his confidence while he's constantly being berated by one or another of Cambridge's elite? He arrives in Britain expecting to function as an equal to the school's academicians. He views them as colleagues, but quickly is pushed into subordinate roles.

Hardy's friend and fellow mathematician Edensor Littlewood (Toby Jones) supports Ramanujan. Jeremy Northam fills a small role as Bertrand Russell, the famed playwright and mathematician who warns Hardy against restraining Ramanujan.

There aren't many surprises in the arc of Brown's story, whose major accomplishment involves introducing Ramanujan's name to uninformed audiences -- albeit in a decorous fashion that never quite stirs the imagination.

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