Friday, April 29, 2016

"The Man Who Knew Infinity": The Folly of the Biopic

Now in Theaters
In doing research to prepare for The Man Who Knew Infinity, I have read many comparisons of the film to 2014’s The Theory of Everything, and critiques of this film about a mathematician often fell along the same lines as what critics said about the Steven Hawking biopic: little emphasis on the actual mathematical breakthroughs at play, a protagonist who exists primarily for the character arcs of other characters, and a plodding screenplay held together by decent performances, yet many found that forgivable for the sake of having a feel-good “true story” to pass the time.  Given my verbosely strong feelings against The Theory of Everything, you would think that I would fall in line with that train of thought, but I actually find myself noticing more similarities with a different 2014 biopic: American Sniper, of all things.

The points of comparison to The Theory of Everything are fairly obvious once one takes the societal impediment of Steven Hawking’s disability and replaces it with the racism of early twentieth century England.  The Man Who Knew Infinity stars Dev Patel as Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self-taught Indian mathematician who travelled to Cambridge to seek publication under the tutelage of Professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons).  Much like in the Hawking film, the focus is not so much on the mathematical achievements of the key figures as it is about those figures having to deal with the pressures of their circumstances, and the cartoonishly blunt racism of the Cambridge students and faculty is apparently supposed to be the thematic glue that holds the film together.  Patel and Irons do their best to play their socially solemn characters and play off one another as only people who love numbers more than companionship can, but the film itself acknowledges that neither excel at friendships, so their arcs fall flat as a consequence.

This is where the comparison to American Sniper starts to rear its ugly head.  Much like in that film, here there is seemingly no purpose in telling the story of the central character.  Ramanujan’s character arc seems to revolve around learning humility in accepting that his breakthroughs require proofs, yet at the same time it is about the white faculty of Cambridge continually insisting how worthless he is until Hardy swoops in as his white savior to get him the recognition he deserves, so those two arcs butt heads in a way that neither feels satisfying.  Then, at the halfway point, the movie transforms into a tragedy about Ramanujan struggling with a terminal tuberculosis diagnosis, shuffling his primary struggle to the background as this new, alien conflict takes center stage.  The accuracy of these events is a moot point if we don’t see a gratifying transformation in our lead character, an emotional journey that we can relate to as an audience.  This just feels like a checklist of moments listed on Ramanujan’s Wikipedia page, dramatized in the vague semblance of a feel-good plot that lacks a central narrative arc.

I’ll say the same thing here that I did about American Sniper: if the filmmakers wanted to make this story into a film, they should have made a documentary.  Patel and Irons are good actors who aren’t given much room to breathe in their un-nuanced roles, and without strong central character arcs, a biopic has nothing to stand on besides fidelity to the real events it portrays.  And if that’s all you have going for your story, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board and present your research in a format that better serves your narrative.  Otherwise you’re doomed to wallow in biopic mediocrity, which is exactly what has happened to the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan.  I hope some documentarian does justice to his story; I would much rather see that.


  1. I haven't seen the movie, but my brother's advisor for his PhD was the math consultant, so he's super excited about it. Did the movie do all the stuff about India and Ramanujan's childhood? I think the India parts have the greatest potential for deconstructing both colonialism and the myth of magical genius.

    1. The India portions of the film are the cheapest looking parts; they look like they were filmed in a back lot with some Indian extras wandering around, at least when they're not clearly on a set. We never see Ramanujan as a child, and the majority of the scenes that take place in India are about his wife and mother, who can't seem to consistently decide which of them wants to return home and which of them wants him to pursue his dreams. So, in short, that potential you're wishing for? Nope. No deconstruction of colonialism. I'd argue that the film even advocates for the myth of magical genius. It's a movie to make middle class white people feel good about themselves. To hope for more would give it too much credit.

    2. The book was in the interesting position of having one living source (the wife) who was extremely biased (in favor of getting fame and money for herself), so some of the weird flip-flops may be from the book. It's super disappointing that they neglected the Indian portion of the story, especially since Ramanujan is a national hero and on the currency and everything, and what Hardy found and refined was definitely created in India, and involved a lot of education and time spent playing with numbers (although even in the book Ramanujan had a shaky you-don't-understand-me relationship with school).

  2. (Er, the India parts from the book, which is pretty good.)