Like The Imitation Game, The Man Who Knew Infinity is a Great Man biopic about a man most viewers have probably never heard of. Srinivasa Ramanujan was a brilliant, self-taught Indian mathematician who in his brief time on this earth made seismic contributions to his field. If nothing else, Matthew Brown's film will introduce audiences to the life of this fascinating thinker -- "the most romantic figure in the recent history of mathematics," as Ramanujan's colleague G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) puts it in an early scene. Still, many viewers might not be able to explain just what exactly Ramanujan did, even after seeing the film.
Movies about math geniuses are especially tricky. The field offers no tangible, material-world consequences to show, no momentous scientific experiments or life-changing works of art, just a bunch of numbers and formulas that happen to speak the secret language of the universe. Ramanujan's work was reportedly of immense importance. How does a filmmaker represent that?
The Man Who Knew Infinity handles this problem by mostly sidestepping it. Much of the film is a typical culture-clash story, but it's not just one of East vs. West. Rather, it's a clash between instinct and process. Ramanujan does all his equations in his head, and is often unable or unwilling to show his work and include proofs with his formulas. For a man of process and detail like Hardy, this is almost unthinkable. But in the end, The Man Who Knew Infinity never allows itself to transcend the sad irony of such biopics -- that people known for thinking outside the box are always given film portraits that refuse to do so.