Jenny gives Matt Brown’s Ramanujan biopic 2 stars
The Man Who Knew Infinity is in the tortured genius genre, so we already know that it can’t possibly end happily. A poor young man from Madras, Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self-taught mathematical prodigy played charmingly by Dev Patel, eventually achieves some success at a Cambridge college after multiple barriers which include racism, snobbery and ill health.
Only ten minutes into this film I had decided that I was watching a Sunday evening TV idea which had grown too big for its sprockets. Was it the soppy version of India, all sitars and flower garlands? Was it the Bollywood casting of the pretty little wife who really just had to do a lot of soulful eye-rolling and staring into the horizon? Was it the cheerfully coloured ‘poverty’?
As the film trudged along, I found concentration difficult, especially as further on into Row D at the Everyman there was a party of naughty ladies who were downing copious quantities of wine, chatting and consulting their phones. The wine had a predictable effect on their bladders so they needed to leave their seats quite a lot. Joe charitably thought that they might be Dev Patel groupies and that the phones were for sharing pictures of their beloved. But maybe they had just made a mistake about the film they thought they were going to see on a girlie night out. Pure Mathematics didn’t seem to hold their interest.
Then I found that certain intrusive, nit-picky questions began to preoccupy me. If Ramanujan was so poor, who paid for his splendidly tailored suits, beautiful shirts and nice cashmere cardis? After a 6,000 mile journey to England, how come his one cream suit was still in tip top condition? These important wardrobe questions were never answered. Why was the weather so peculiar? Even in Cambridge I don’t think the rain falls on just one side of an umbrella, and when you cross one of those handsome quads I doubt that the conversation booms as it did in this film or that the light glows quite so orangely on people’s faces for so much of the time. Do people with TB really have eyes that look like something out of a cheaply-made horror film?
Then there is the problem of how you explain mathematical genius when virtually no one in the audience is likely to understand a word of it. Answer: you show a lot of chalkboard or notebook workings but at such speed that we know we don’t need to bother to read them, and you have a handy Irish servant (a Bedder as I believe they are known) who doesn’t know any more maths than we do, so that Jeremy Irons, playing the Cambridge professor, GH Hardy, can do some helpful mansplaining (or mathsplaining, as Joe suggested it might be called).
Meantime, the ladies had sent out for another bottle, the wine glasses were glinting from the light on their phones and their faces seemed a little flushed.
The biopic is a difficult act to pull off. Almost invariably it presents a one-dimensional, sentimentalised version of the person’s ‘real’ life. Pedants spring up to point out all the many factual mistakes and the director indignantly defends the film as fiction anyway. Many tortured geniuses have had a number of films made about their lives – for instance Vincent Van Gogh, Frida Kalho, Howard Hughes – but can anyone remember these films now or distinguish them from each other?
The actual Ramanujan married his wife when she was ten and left her when she was fifteen. He was not tall, rangy and handsome like Dev Patel but a rather chubby plain-looking fellow. His was undoubtedly a life cut tragically short, but somehow by the time we got to that part I had wholly lost interest and I was a bit preoccupied by the utterly trivial question of how soon we could get to the restaurant and order our own bottle.
I think playwrights have had better luck with this kind of material, Jenny, partly because subsidised theatre is not required to please a mass popcorn-eating audience (nor a wine-guzzling, selfie-tweeting one), but also because the stage is a symbolic medium that lends itself more readily to the exploration of ideas.
Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (1998) didn’t depend on leaden mathsplaining to present Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle but dramatized it through a series of conflicting narratives. In Arcadia (1993) Tom Stoppard created the poignant fiction of a nineteenth century teenage genius who grasps the concept of chaos theory, but dies, leaving her grieving tutor to waste a lifetime failing to bring her ideas to fruition, and in this way communicates one of the essential features of this branch of mathematics – that it depends on repeated iterations, each one simple in itself, but on a scale that only a computer can manage.
In defence of Matt Brown’s film, at least some brief explanation is offered of the kind of problem Ramanujan was working on, even if the device is rather creaky. As far as I remember, A Beautiful Mind, starring the beefy Russell Crowe, quickly abandoned any attempt at explaining game theory in favour of more muscular activities such as heaving desks from first floor windows.
I enjoyed The Man Who Knew Infinity more than you, Jenny, and more than our neighbours, who seemed strangely indifferent to the craggy charms of Trinity College quad and the even craggier charms of Jeremy Irons. I was moved by Hardy’s attachment to his fellow mathematician Littlewood, and by his growing understanding of the profundity of his Indian protégé’s genius. But for a mind-expanding treatment of Ramanujan’s life, A Disappearing Number (2007) was vastly more successful. Devised by Théâtre de Complicité and directed and conceived by Simon McBurney, it included live percussion, suggestive of the numerical sequences that absorbed Ramanujan, and brought abstract ideas impressionistically alive through dance and dramatic action.