by Brad Nelson 6/3/18
I can hear you thinking, “Brad, why are you reviewing another movie that you can’t heartily recommend?” The answer is that you might be fascinated by the subject (mathematics) and/or are a fan of Jeremy Irons who finally (in my humble opinion) has done his first solid work in some time. (He’s okay in The Borgias but I got quickly bored with the series.)
Doe-eyed Dev Patel (God help me…I had almost successfully cleansed my mind of Chappie and The Last Airbender) plays the noted genius mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan. (It’s a lovely last name when you hear it pronounced.) Wiki gives a pretty good summary of the facts:
. . . an Indian mathematician who lived during the British Rule in India. Though he had almost no formal training in pure mathematics, he made substantial contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions, including solutions to mathematical problems considered to be unsolvable. Ramanujan initially developed his own mathematical research in isolation; it was quickly recognized by Indian mathematicians. Seeking mathematicians who could better understand his work, in 1913 he began a postal partnership with the English mathematician G. H. Hardy at the University of Cambridge, England. Recognizing the extraordinary work sent to him as samples, Hardy arranged travel for Ramanujan to Cambridge. In his notes, Ramanujan had produced groundbreaking new theorems, including some that Hardy stated had “defeated [him and his colleagues] completely”, in addition to rediscovering recently proven but highly advanced results.
Unfortunately, the movie leaves Ramanujan’s early life a blank slate. How did his gift first manifest itself? How could he do advanced mathematics with scant formal training? That must have been an interesting story. But remember: This is a film in which to enjoy Jeremy Irons (and Toby Jones as Littlewood), not to learn about Ramanujan (other than how to pronounce his beautiful name) or to learn much about mathematics. The paragraph above will save you a lot of time if you’re not an Irons fan as I am and just want the basic facts.
Worst still is that the Ramanujan we do get as an adult is played by Dev Patel whose palette consists of looking doe-eyed while acting as if he’s always congenitally late and/or had too much coffee. This is a horrible choice for this story.
Stephen Fry has a small, but fine, role as Sir Francis Spring who is G.H. Hardy’s (Irons’) boss. He has to give the green light for Ramanujan to start has presence at Cambridge. Jeremy Northam (he’s splendid as Sir Thomas More in The Tudors and as Anthony Eden in The Crown) plays first-class *#$@!-hole Bertrand Russell. He’s fairly tame in this.
Ramanujan is of the Brahmin caste. (Top Raman?) It’s a major break with tradition for him to go to England because his caste is not suppose to travel over the sea. But he does and the decidedly non-touchy-feely G.H. Hardy takes him under his wing as best he can. But there’s a problem. He (and others) recognize that Ramanujan’s theorems are brilliant (and uniquely creative) but what Hardy needs from him before he can publish his work are formal proofs. Yes, the math looks good, but is the theorem true?
Ramanujan is a remarkably highly intuitive mathematician, even by the standards of the greatest of the great. (For shame we do not see how he first came to this and how it developed.) Hardy tries to tell him that intuition isn’t enough. You must have formal proofs of your work as well. Ramanujan is offended. He says that the math is revealed to him by god. And given the extraordinary nature of how he comes up with these theorems (there is some good, if short, philosophical discussion of the subject) and the highly creative (so say the experts) way his math is structured, his claim is credible.
Unfortunately, Patel plays the character with such lack of depth it’s hard to be sympathetic for him, even in those moments when the film makers do their best to virtue-signal how ugly and racist the British are. (Hardy has a good discussion with Ramanujan about this, telling him that — oh, yes, there are elements of that — but what he is facing as much as anything are institutional jealousies.)
Irons is fabulous throughout this. It’s such a shame he couldn’t act opposite someone of greater talent and/or had a better script. This is a made-for-TV quality script with an A-list actor.
But you didn’t think you were going to learn anything about math anyway, did you? I’m not sure how a movie can relate the importance and relevancy of this subject in a way that people (including myself) can understand. But they do give a brief explanation of the Partition number theory. You can partition 4 in five ways:
3 + 1
2 + 2
2 + 1 + 1
1 + 1 + 1 + 1
And even relatively small numbers (like 100) have 190,569,292 partitions. I have no idea how it is useful knowing that the p of 1000 is 24,061,467,864,032,622,473,692,149,727,991. Perhaps it’s just a mathematical oddity. But finding theorems for such problems is the Holy Grail and makes you a rock star in the world of mathematics.
I’ll make you a deal. You can skip this movie if you run out and see A Beautiful Mind, another movie about a famous mathematician — in this case, John Nash as played extraordinarily by Russell “never should have came within a country mile of Les Miserables” Crowe. I’m not sure you’ll learn much about mathematics either, but in the case of Nash, you do see (if not understand) how his theories were enormously important for economics. The cast is terrific and the story of Nash’s life is compelling.
Not so much with Ramanujan as played by Patel, although some reviewers familiar with his life (he’s like the Einstein of India) say it is an extraordinary story — with much of it left out or changed in this movie. (Yes…this movie does have the feel of taking liberties with the facts.) If you do watch The Man Who Knew Infinity, let me know how you liked it and/or what you thought of Irons’ performance. I’m sure you’ll admire the latter at the very least.
Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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