The story of self-taught mathematical wizard Srinavasa Ramanujan — who in 1913 traveled from colonial India to the halls of Cambridge in Britain, shattering stereotypes with his theoretical ingenuity before dying tragically young at 32 — has already inspired a number of books, plays and films. The latest cinematic treatment, writer-director Matthew Brown's "The Man Who Knew Infinity," is a reverent portrait starring ever-earnest Dev Patel as Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons as his supportive professor, G.H. Hardy. But the movie, a real-life "Good Will Hunting" of sorts, suffers from being nothing like the cultural outlier Ramanujan was: It's one more respectable British biopic following a formula.
Early scenes in Madras show the twentysomething wunderkind as a shipping clerk with a young wife (Devika Bhise), filling books and writing equations in chalk on temple floors but with nobody to impress. When Trinity College shows interest, Ramanujan makes the journey, only to be met with skepticism and institutional prejudice outside the deep bond formed with the admiring, disciplined Hardy, who pushes for proofs that will show his inspirations to be merit worthy.
Though Brown is on to something in dramatizing Ramanujan and Hardy as hot and cold opposites on a blind academic date, he settles too often for clichéd lines ("I was told you love numbers more than people") and never gels the swirl of prejudice, war and brilliant minds into a charged whole the way "The Imitation Game" did depicting Alan Turing, another beleaguered brainiac.
Even more regrettable is that the poetry in the men's line of study remains enigmatic as a manifest art, so the movie — perhaps fearful of boring audiences — substitutes actor-gestured intelligence for any attempt to illuminate the math. Irons makes it work, turning in a lived-in portrait of an educated man on an emotional learning curve, but Patel sticks to underdog shorthand and suffers for it.
Then again, there's little else he can do but work a continually pained expression considering the itemized ills in the screenplay's second half, namely a worsening case of tuberculosis. If "The Man Who Knew Infinity" had been more concerned with the soul of a raw talent instead of the learn-and-earn ethos of so much accomplishment cinema, it might have produced something soulful rather than something institutional.
'The Man Who Knew Infinity'
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13, for some thematic elements and smoking
Playing: Arclight Hollywood and the Landmark, West Los Angeles