One of the best biographies I’ve read was Robert Kanigel’s The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency, the writer’s rehabilitation of a man whose methods (if not motivation – Taylor wanted to make work more efficient to improve the lot of workers as well as managers) influence much even today. I’d always intended to read Kanigel’s well received biography of another figure whose thinking sits beneath so much work today, the Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, but well, I needed to find the time to do so. But first time feature film director, Matthew Brown, did read the book and used it as the basis of his film of the same name, The Man Who Knew Infinity.
Brown’s camera is unafraid to linger on the glorious locations where Ramanujan spent his tragically short life, with Madras and Trinity College Cambridge vying to be the more exotic. The Indian scenes are gorgeously lit and largely forgo the easy options of the elephants and the poverty for a portrayal of his early life in a colonial accounts office as tough, but not impossible, his home life influenced but not determined by caste and religion. I could not help think of his near contemporary, Albert Einstein, who also spent time in a drudge job (at the Swiss Patent Office) whilst being rejected by an academic establishment who could not see his genius for what it became.
That genius is still not recognised when Ramanujan, having had a letter read by Cambridge don, GH Hardy, and an invitation to visit extended, arrives in Trinity’s famous quad to be met with The Academy’s healthy methodological scepticism and its unhealthy overt racism. Like cricketer Basil D’Oliviera forty years on at another pillar of The Establishment, MCC, his rustic technique (Ramanujan hasn’t much time for the proofs needed to buttress the work prior to publication that Hardy implores him to write) and his untutored, intuitive approach make him a poor fit with a culture that stretches back to Isaac Newton and beyond. There’s plenty of bigotry and a touch of envy too in those men who cannot accept that an vegetarian Indian in sandals is pushing back the boundaries of a discipline built on thousands of years of history with ideas that just come into his head.
Jeremy Irons plays Hardy as a chain-smoking atheist doyen, with a lifetime spent managing an undiagnosed autism, but with enough vision to see what Ramanujan could become and enough tough love to get him at least part of the way there. Hardy is contrasted with Jeremy Northam’s foppish Bertrand Russell, already showing the radical streak which would overwhelm his philosophical brilliance as his life’s work and the many harrumphing colleagues who believe he’s being indulged once too often.
Brown doesn’t flinch from engaging his audience with the mathematics (and gets some negative reviews in the Press as a result). We get plenty of blackboards filled with incomprehensible symbols and definitely no Margot Robbie in the bath, and there’s due respect shown to the hard work required by mathematical enquiry, even when it comes from its most mercurial practitioners. There’s no Eureka! moment staged to underline Ramanujan’s revolutionary achievements, just papers being read by middle-aged men in glasses with a mixture of doubt and wonder – like real research in other words. There is a particularly well written and delivered speech towards the end of the movie in which Hardy gives us an unimpeachable summary of Ramanujan’s greatness – a setpiece in a film that largely eschews them, tempting though they are to directors working in such environments.
Dev Patel gives us a Ramanujan whose eyes tell the tale of his discomfort amongst the accounts clerks in India and also amongst the racists (conscious and subconscious) of England. He misses his wife (Devika Bhise) whose conflict with his mother is an understandable, if slightly overdone, sub-plot, and makes the kinds of social faux pas that anyone from an accounts office in Manchester would make at Trinity, never mind one from Madras. Patel is at his best in his conversations with Hardy, where there is just a hint that the older man may have felt his attachment to his protege to have a romantic dimension were the times more enlightened. Patel’s performance may be short of the histrionics that can garner award nominations, but it’s probably true to a man whose interior life of the intellect and the spiritual drove him rather than a willingness to become a symbol for tolerance or Gandhian political radicalism. Brown should be commended for not shoehorning easy options like those into Ramanujan’s story.
Possibly the result of his strict vegetarianism maintained through wartime rationing, possibly the product of the cold Cambridge winters or maybe the consequence of an undiagnosed liver condition brought from his homeland, Ramanujan is carried away by tuberculosis at just 32 years of age, but not before his achievements were recognised at Cambridge and beyond. Though widely known in mathematical circles, this film, at least as watchable as last year’s multi-award winning biopics of Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing, will bring his name to popular audiences and underline yet again that intellectual power can come in packages that don’t fit into preconceived boxes. It’s a lesson those who wish to reduce Higher Education to league tables and box ticking research exercises might do well to reflect upon.