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‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’: Patel, Irons as engaging math pros

Hardy (Jeremy Irons, left) and Ramanujan (Dev Patel) walk through the Quad at Trinity College, Cambridge in Matthew Brown’s "The Man Who Knew Infinity." | Richard Blanshard IFC Films

Mathematics pretty much has always been a subject of study that draws an emotional response from those who teach it and those who do their best to distinguish quotients from integers from square roots. And honestly, when WILL I ever use it in real life?

Watching “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” I came away with a much deeper understanding of math from a man most consider the greatest mathematician in history (though he had and most likely still does have his detractors). Nope, I didn’t understand one iota of what the Indian math genius S. Ramanujan was talking about when it came to math partitions.

But everything changed in an instant, when the young visionary, struggling to make the world understand the theorems that poured forth from his mind faster than he could even write them, explained it thusly: “An equation has no meaning for me unless it expresses a thought of God.” I didn’t gain more knowledge of what he spoke; I came to learn about someone who opened a whole new world to those who would listen. And isn’t that the mark of any great teacher? At the heart of writer-director Matthew Brown’s film is that mathematical existentialism, if you will, that “higher power” that separated a man of deep faith (regardless of religion) from his nearest champion, the eccentric British mathematician G.H. Hardy, who believed in no God, believed in nothing he could not “prove.” If Ramanujan was guided by faith, was he less of a genius?

Dev Patel stars the Indian mathematics genius Srinavasa Ramanujan in “The Man Who Knew Infinity.” | IFC FILMS
Dev Patel stars the Indian mathematics genius Srinavasa Ramanujan in “The Man Who Knew Infinity.” | IFC FILMS

“The Man Who Knew Infinity” is the true story of Ramanujan (played by the striking Dev Patel from “Slumdog Millionaire”), a self-taught Indian math prodigy who, through a series of events and much determination to leave his native Madras, winds up at Trinity College at Cambridge, where he finds a mentor (and eventually a friend) in the eccentric Hardy (Jeremy Irons in a steadfast performance), an accomplished mathematician in his own right, who can help him publish his formulas and perhaps one day achieve the esteemed position of full fellow at the lofty university.

Set against the outbreak of WWI, the film touches on sacrifices — the wartime rationing (the vegetarian Ramanujan nearly starves in the pursuit of sustenance), the use of all available space for makeshift field hospitals, the nearly immeasurable pain of leaving behind those you love as Ramanujan does with his new bride Janaki (in an almost ethereal performance by twentysomething newcomer Devika Bhise). It also touches on the prejudice of early 1900s English society, scorning Ramanujan simply because of his skin color and heritage (though India was under the rule of the British crown at the time). “Great knowledge often comes from the humblest of beings,” Hardy’s colleague John Littlewood (Toby Jones in a fine performance) observes in Ramanujan’s defense.

Perhaps most of all, “Infinity” shows us the very finite lives we are all afforded. In the end, it’s what we leave in our wake that is truly the measure of a person, what we did to make the world a little better than we found it that gives us each a thread of immortality on some level.

“I don’t want this to die with me,” Ramanujan pleads at one point with Hardy, begging that the elitist faculty embrace the theories he knows to be true. The mathematician can change the world, one theory at a time. He knows it is so in his mind — and his heart. In the end, Ramanujan’s pleas will be heard, and it of course comes at a price.

Comparisons will undoubtedly be made to “A Beautiful Mind” or even “The Theory of Everything.” But “The Man Who Knew Infinity” stands on its own merit, thanks in great measure to Patel and Irons, who give us two engaging characters. This is not so much a film about understanding the numbers, but understanding the men who made us see their merit, and the passion that drives each of us to find the true meaning in our lives. And that is a worthy lesson indeed.

★★★

IFC Films presents a film written and directed by Matthew Brown. Rated PG-13 (some thematic elements, smoking). Running time: 108 minutes. Opening Friday at local theaters.