Biopics in general have fallen into a rut of rote storytelling and a textbook-like recitation of facts, but the direst subsection has got to be biopics about scientists and mathematicians. Movies about athletes, actors, musicians, and statesmen at least have their public performances, political victories, or personal sordidness with which to entertain us. But scientists, unless they were totally bonkers or otherwise fascinating, tend to have precious little in their biographies to inspire anything more than admiration.
Case in point: “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” a serviceable but unremarkable movie about a mathematician who undoubtedly deserves to be honored (especially since racism and colonialism prevented him from being well-known in his lifetime), but whose career simply doesn’t make for stimulating cinema — or at least not in this telling of it, by writer-director Matthew Brown, adapting Robert Kanigel’s book. It has the feel of a term paper submitted by a student who’s a smart writer but only covered the topic because it was assigned to him.
Set in the 1910s, the film follows Srinivasa Ramanujan (“Slumdog Millionaire’s” Dev Patel), a resilient, religiously devout Indian math whiz who’s invited by Professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) to Cambridge, where he dazzles everyone but faces opposition because of his ethnicity, social class, and lack of formal education. He has some more legitimate obstacles, too. For example, his genius is such that he has no patience for the lengthy, painstaking proofs that professional mathematics requires, preferring to just publish the formulas, never mind how he came up with them. This doesn’t fly at methodical, stodgy Cambridge, especially when half the faculty are looking for reasons to dismiss him anyway.
He’s also homesick. Back in India, Ramanujan has a loving wife, Janaki (Devika Bhise), and a jealous mother (Arundathi Nag), who hides the couple’s letters to and from each other out of vaguely defined spite. (In accordance with movie law, Mom doesn’t destroy these letters but keeps them neatly wrapped in a bundle and hidden away so that Janaki can eventually find them and be furious with her.) Ramanujan was separated from his wife for most of his short life, but that tragic fact seems to be included here merely out of biographical obligation. Brown never finds a way to make it hit home emotionally or connect to the story thematically.
Indeed, Brown’s dramatization of Ramanujan’s career and personal struggles is overly respectful and ordinary — a sterile examination with no personality. And that’s despite Patel’s earnest performance, helpful supporting turns by the likes of Irons, Toby Jones, Stephen Fry, and Jeremy Northam, and the period details that Brown and his crew recreate so well. It ends, of course, with photos of the real Ramanujan and onscreen captions telling us what happened next, lest the story of a mathematician be anything other than by-the-numbers.
C+ (1 hr., 48 min.; )