The life of mathematics genius Srinivasa Ramanujan is worth telling – but not from the cradle to the grave.

The Man Who Knew Infinity dulls in comparison to the likes of Steve Jobs (2015) and The Social Network (2010) as the tale of an extraordinary talent is told in too ordinary a manner.

Srinivasa Ramanujan’s (Dev Patel) arrives at Trinity College, away from his homeland in India.

Based on a 1991 biography of the same name, the Matthew Brown biopic chronicles the short life of Srinivasa Ramanujan’s (Dev Patel) as the deeply religious Mathematics genius leaves India for the Trinity College in Cambridge. The young Brahmin is in the good hands of Professor G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), but having to prove his “God-breathed” theorems in Western tradition and to find his footing amid elitist white academics are uphill struggles. His health also gradually declines as World War 1 looms.

This well-intentioned biopic is engaging and moving at times, but its overly cautious and conventional narrative style is a let-down. In fact, the sort of cradle-to-the-grave account seen in The Man Who Knew Infinity should be for long-form drama serials, not feature length films.

Screenwriters behind many award-winning biopics including The King’s Speech (2010) and Lincoln (2012) are well aware that they won’t do a good job if they try telling a complete life story in 2 hours. Hence, many tend to zero in on one key aspect, or one defining moment in their protagonists’ lives. Their goal is to deliver a brilliant chapter, not a mediocre book.

Friendship between Ramanujan and Professor Hardy (Jeremy Irons) blossoms.

The Man Who Knew Infinity, in this case, is very much a “book”, one with a predictable narrative saddled with some poorly developed sub-plots. It would’ve been good if the film had stayed focused on Ramanujan’s internal struggle and his evolving friendship with Professor Hardy. Less relevant sub-plots, such as those on the conflicts between Ramanujan’s mother and wife, should’ve been ruthlessly cut.

The film will also find it hard to impress movie-goers who have developed a taste for non-linear narratives. Steve Jobs (2015), for instance, is structured into 3 acts, with each playing up the Apple co-founder’s eccentric and mercurial nature moments before he introduced a new product to his idolatrous fans. In The Social Network (2010), socially in-apt Mark Zuckerberg’s founding of social media giant Facebook was told in flashbacks as his legal battle with his co-founders unravels in the present. When executed well, such narratives that venture beyond the tried-and-tested format do deliver stronger impact and create more lasting impression.

There are of course very well-received conventional biopics. The Theory of Everything (2014) and The Imitation Game (2014) are told chronologically but are nevertheless spellbinding, thanks in large part to Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch’s riveting portrayals of Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing respectively. Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame plays the fish-out-of-water character in The Man Who Knew Infinity reasonably well, but he’s no Redmayne or Cumberbatch. Not yet. A biopic needs an actor with gravitas in its leading role, and Patel will need more time to develop that.

Jeremy Irons brings out his character as professor and father figure to the mathematics genius beautifully.

Having said that this earnest character-driven film is still worth catching. Jeremy Irons shines as the professor and father figure for the mathematics genius. While the story is set in the Trinity College, the film is not loaded with too many pompous explanations of advanced Mathematics, so it wouldn’t intimidate those of us who aren’t well-versed in the subject. The shots taken in India and Cambridge are delightful. The nuances in the two cultures, one marked by spirituality and the other, elitism, are also rather well-captured. 

Ramanujan’s story is an important one to be told. It has far more potential than what has already been explored in The Man Who Knew Infinity.

[xrr rating=3/5 display_as=textstars label=”Overall rating:”]

Release Date: 19 May 2016

Runtime: 109 minutes

Language: English

Censorship Rating: PG

Genre: Biography, Drama

Director: Matthew Brown

Featured Cast: Dev Pantel, Jeremy Irons