I first heard the name Srinivasa Ramanujan in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting (1997) during a conversation between Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) and Sean Maguire (Robin Williams). Lambeau talks to Maguire for a minute or two about the young Indian maths prodigy and how Cambridge-based mathematician G.H. Hardy instantly recognised his genius. The conservation moves on, but my fascination with the man didn’t and so, I was happy to see a biopic about a man not many outside the world of mathematics will be familiar with.
The film covers a brief, yet remarkable period in Ramanujan’s life. As a young twenty-something in Madras he tries in vain to get his work and theorems acknowledged. Eventually, his work is introduced to prominent mathematician G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), a Professor at Trinity College, Cambridge. Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is invited to Cambridge where he collaborates with Hardy and the kindly J.E. Littlewood (Toby Jones) on pure number theory and mathematical analysis for the next six years.
It’s a fish-out-of-water picture that doesn’t do anything extraordinary. Very paint-by-numbers, run-of-the-mill story but what it does do; it does right. It’s a story about opposites. Ramanujan is a stranger in a strange land. He is subjected to racism and snobbery of early twentieth century England, with one professor (Anthony Calf) being particularly cruel and disrespectful. He is also deeply religious and said himself: “An equation for me has no meaning, unless it represents a thought of God.”
He has no time for proofs, because he knows his equations and theorems are correct, but a more world-weary, cynical and ultimately, more rational Hardy, himself an atheist, informs his pupil that in this line of work, proofs are paramount.
Comparisons will, and have been made with Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001) and The Imitation Game (2014), simply because of the subject matter. But I disagree. I found myself thinking of Locke (2013), a film by Steven Knight that, for many people, went under the radar. A film where the protagonist talks in such a way about things that others would find mundane; concrete in this instance. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) when discussing plans for a new building he’s in charge of, cries: “Do it for that piece of sky we are stealing with our building!”
Beautiful, I thought. And similarly, that’s what Dev Patel does. He brings an air of romance to, again, for many, a dull subject. Dull for those who never really ‘got’ maths. Nor did I; but it’s still an interesting field, and without maths I wouldn’t be using my laptop to explain why maths is so vital to the world. After all, it’s called pure mathematics and Hardy once said: “There’s no place in this world for ugly mathematics.”
The maths itself, although complicated and absurdly difficult, is remarkably accessible and even I (who reached the dizzy heights of Grade C at GCSE level, understood a scene about partitions.
It’s a sterling effort from writer/director Matthew Brown and the supporting cast, featuring Stephen Fry, Jeremy Northam and Kevin McNally all do a solid job. My only concern is the age difference between Patel (twenty-five) and Irons (sixty-seven), when in reality Hardy is only ten years older than Ramanujan. If the film fell apart in other areas, this might be more of an issue. But it doesn’t, so it isn’t.
Like so much of Ramanujan’s work, this film just adds up.