Hitting SBS this week, The Man Who Knew Infinity is a portrait of genius under pressure, telling the story of real-life Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel), who endured scathing racial prejudice while doing groundbreaking work at Cambridge University in the early 20th century.
Ramanujan was, without a doubt, a bona fide genius, but it’s extremely difficult to get across to an audience how such a mind, steeped in arcane knowledge and capable of incredible intuitive leaps, actually works, which can be a barrier to empathy for us poor “normal” folks who are here for a good time at the movies, not a treatise on theoretical mathematics. Writer and director Matthew Brown gets around this by focusing his narrative on Ramanujan’s personal drama, foregrounding the number-cruncher’s relationship with his mentor, G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), and his tribulations at the hands of racist dons like Stephen Fry’s Sir Francis Spring.
It’s not the first film to do this, of course – we may not be able to grasp the cryptographical genius of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing in 2014’s The Imitation Game, but we can certainly empathise with his personal struggles with acknowledging his homosexuality and the sheer, awful injustice of his prosecution for Gross Indecency, especially since he pretty much single-handedly shortened World War II by several years by cracking the German Enigma Codes.
Similarly, you have to be smarter than the average bear to really contend with Stephen Hawking’s ideas – there’s a reason he was the most famous thinker since Albert Einstein. So, while The Theory of Everything (also released in 2014 – it was a big year for smart guy biopics) employs the odd visual flourish, such as swirled milk in a cup of coffee as a metaphor for Hawking’s theories on time:
…it’s far more interested in the relationship between Hawking and his wife, Jane (Felicity Jones) – and his battle with Motor Neurone Disease, of course. And who can blame director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten? Extremely smart people are hard to read, and hard to write about – it’s no insult to say that both men, although highly skilled in their own way, probably fall a fair bit short of Hawking in the brains stakes, and writing from the point of view of someone incontrovertibly smarter than you is incredibly challenging.
Perhaps that’s why Peter Shaffer, the playwright who adapted his own play for director Milos Forman, makes Mozart a supporting character in his own movie. 1984’s Amadeus puts us in the shoes of the jealous and Machiavellian composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), whose jealousy of the effortlessly amazing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) is the engine of the film. After all, who hasn’t been envious of the talented?
Occasionally we get a film that takes a real stab at putting us into the mind of a genius and showing us – or at least translating for us, using the language of cinema – the way they see the world. Director Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate (2018), a biopic of doomed painter Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) is a bit of a dirge, as you might expect, but director of photography Benoît Delhomme does a wonderful job of showing us how the great artist saw the world, imbuing his filmed images with a colour palette and textures that echo Van Gogh’s painting technique.
Interview: Willem Dafoe talks 'At Eternity's Gate'
And then there’s Ron Howard’s 2001 biopic of mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe), A Beautiful Mind, which not only tries to depict his worldview with a range of arresting lighting effects, but also dramatises the symptoms of the schizophrenia that plagued him for his entire life, making the familiar claim that the line between genius and insanity is a thin one.
Of course, there’s an easier path than trying to depict the inner workings of a real life boffin, and that’s to employ a fictional one. Director Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film Sherlock Holmes mostly functions as a gritty update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed sleuth, here played by Robert Downey Jr., but it goes to great lengths to show how quickly the detective’s mind works. This being a movie from the director of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, it’s best explicated in a fight scene, where Holmes uses his big brain to completely disassemble his opponent in a bare-knuckle boxing match.
Who can say? Perhaps the real trick to depicting genius in cinema is to have Turing, Ramanujan and the rest crack a few skulls. Brilliance may be unknowable, but everyone understands a good right hook to the jaw.
Watch 'The Man Who Knew Infinity'
SBS Australia, Friday April 26 8.30pm
United Kingdom, 2016
Director: Matt Brown
Starring: Jeremy Irons, Dev Patel, Toby Jones, Stephen Fry
What's it about?
Growing up poor in Madras, India, Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar earns admittance to Cambridge University during WWI, where he becomes a pioneer in mathematical theories with the guidance of his professor, G.H. Hardy.