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From anonymity in Madras to legendry at Cambridge

Genius is a lot of things. Discriminating is not one of them. It doesn’t care where it alights. Wealth, physical health, gender, race, sexuality, social position, geographic location and moral turpitude don’t really enter into its habitation. Genius just takes hold wherever it jolly well chooses and, when recognized and nurtured, blooms with no concern for anything but itself.

Srinivasa Ramanujan was a barefoot clerk lucky to have a job at all in Madras. He had a young wife, a clinging mother and no education to speak of. But he also had several notebooks full of recondite mathematical calculations and theorems, many of which were way beyond those that were promulgated anywhere else in what we laughingly call the civilized world.

So he sent some of them everywhere there were mathematicians who might understand them. The period is just before the first World War. One of the places he sends his compulsive work is Cambridge University, specifically to unconventional mathematician H.G. Hardy, who wasn’t particularly well-born either but recognized an unusual and exceptional mind when he saw one.

That is the absorbing story told in “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” the latest bit of solid, old-fashioned tale-telling about genius to come from England in a period when its narrative proficiency from premium TV productions seems to be spreading all over the place. Most recently, we’ve seen great films about Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing.

“The Man Who Knew Infinity” is not nearly on the same level as “The Theory of Everything” or “The Imitation Game.” But it’s an absorbing and affecting film on its own.

The relationship of the math genius from India and the highly eccentric Cambridge don is a tale just waiting to be told with any proficiency at all. And when you’ve got Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire” as the barefoot young genius from Madras and Jeremy Irons as his pipe-smoking Cambridge mentor, you’ve got a story well-realized in every particular.

Obviously, there is no way that those of us who are not math-friendly (sorry, my hand was raised before yours was) are going to agree, as propounded in the film’s voice-over, that mathematics is beautiful. We can see, plain as day, that the actress who plays Ramanujan’s wife – Devika Bhise – is a devastating beauty but, for pity’s sake, we have to accept the beauty of equations and theorems as metaphorical.

Which, thank heaven, is all the movie really asks us to do. We’re asked to watch the story of an underprivileged math genius from the provinces of the subcontinent who goes to Cambridge, is impressed first with the quantity of paper he’s given to work with and winds up, inevitably, learning “civilized” yearnings for fame and immortality. And to think, all he wanted was to be tutored, published and left alone.

Bertrand Russell was one of Hardy’s colleagues. His pacifism, needless to say, didn’t play well at the beginnings of World War I. As played by Jeremy Northam, he advises Hardy to let his young colleague run and to stop bedeviling him with the proofs he shuns. When Hardy finally understands he should do just that, it is almost too late – but not quite.

And so higher mathematics in our time is saved for those who understand the stuff.

While all this is going on, Cambridge’s equivalents of slack-jawed morons are calling the young man “wog” and beating him up on the streets as practice for going off to war.

It’s based on a true story that was first told in a 1991 book by Robert Kaniger. Writer/director Matthew Brown was, before this, by no means a figure of pre-possessing pedigree.

But this cast is wisely studded with some of the best that British film and TV have to offer – Irons, Northam, Toby Jones, Stephen Fry. The cast announces to you the prestige film it wants to be.

In one wonderful scene, our math prodigy first sees the quadrangle at Cambridge’s Trinity College and is stopped dead in his tracks by the beauty of it and the centuries of hallowed tradition in a place he is seeing for the first time.

Says Hardy briskly to his protege “Yes. (Pause) The intended effect. Don’t be intimidated.”

Good advice for seeing the film, too. It’s about the worldly doings of genuinely awesome intellect. Some of it has the intended effect.

But don’t be intimidated.



3 stars (Out of four)

Title: “The Man Who Knew Infinity”

Starring: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Toby Jones, Devica Bhise, Stephen Fry, Jeremy Northam

Director: Matthew Brown

Running time: 108 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 for mature content and smoking.

The Lowdown: Indian mathematical genius becomes a Cambridge legend.