Dancing with numbers

Matt Brown on The Man Who Knew Infinity and Joe Strummer story London Town.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Director/screenwriter Matt Brown with Coby Brown,  theme music composer of The Man Who Knew Infinity
Director/screenwriter Matt Brown with Coby Brown, theme music composer of The Man Who Knew Infinity Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Man Who Knew Infinity, based on the biography by Robert Kanigel, stars Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel, with Devika Bhise, Toby Jones, Stephen Fry, Jeremy Northam, Kevin McNally, Enzo Cilenti and Richard Johnson. At a preview screening in New York hosted by Gabriel Byrne, J.C. Chandor, Bennett Miller, Emily Mortimer, Joanna Coles, Hendrik Hertzberg, Steve Kroft, Lawrence O’Donnell and Beau Willimon, I spoke with Matt Brown on missing Jeremy Irons in Long Day's Journey into Night and remembering him in Barbet Schroeder's Reversal of Fortune, produced by Edward R Pressman.

Matt Brown with producer Edward R Pressman
Matt Brown with producer Edward R Pressman Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Writing Derrick Borte's London Town inspired by Joe Strummer and The Clash, studying math on couches and how Matt's relationship with his brother Coby influenced the making of the film were touched upon.

In The Man Who Knew Infinity, Dev Patel as mathematician S Ramanujan and especially Jeremy Irons as Trinity College, Cambridge professor GH Hardy leave ample space in their performances for a myriad of feelings. "You dance with numbers to infinity," poetically expresses Hardy's awe of the prodigy. "I'm an atheist," states Hardy. "No. You believe in God, you just don't think he likes you" counters Ramanujan.

The First World War rages and food rationing makes it even harder for the vegetarian Ramanujan arriving from Madras, India, to nourish himself in an often hostile environment on many fronts. Director/screenwriter Matt Brown pays attention to detail when a student from Calcutta informs the newcomer that not only the mutton has to be avoided, but also the potatoes, cooked in lard.

Devika Bhise with Jeremy Irons at Elyx House after party
Devika Bhise with Jeremy Irons at Elyx House after party Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The maths might be more decoration than enlightenment for most audiences, but the aura of Cambridge a century ago and looming large into centuries before that is irresistible. When Littlewood (Toby Jones) meets Ramanujan at the gate, he notices the reverence, "the intended effect," as he points to "the very tree under which Newton sat."

The Man Who Knew Infinity recognizes Ramanujan as deserving of a place under that tree.

Anne-Katrin Titze: How were you at math?

Matt Brown: Terrible. Absolutely dreadful. I got better at math when I went to - it was called School within a School at Brookline High School - it was a lot of us artsy types. They decided to have us do math class on couches. And all of a sudden, I got a lot better. Which taught me that perhaps the rigid ideas about how to teach math in this country are maybe not so great.

AKT: So this film is not something that has been your dream since childhood? You brought your entire family tonight. The film was 12 years in the making?

GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons) with S Ramanujan (Dev Patel)
GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons) with S Ramanujan (Dev Patel)

MB: Yeah, 12 years. It was the human story behind it. It really was and it was a very personal film for me. I wrote it in an oncology ward taking care of my brother with his wife while he was going through terrible cancer. I understood the isolation and some of the themes that were in this story. And then he got better and he wound up doing the music for the movie, which was incredible. So it has always remained a personal story about the cost that comes when people wait out of fear to connect in their relationships.

AKT: That is very relevant for the present.

MB: Very much. I think it's universal. I want people to open their hearts because I think there's a lot of other outliers in the world that are not recognised, that are probably toiling in isolation themselves. And if we don't open up, then how the hell are we ever going to bring them in and nurture that talent. It's the message of this film. So it sort of transcends the mathematics. Mathematics is just a background for these incredibly passionate artists.

The Man Who Knew Infinity family at the premiere
The Man Who Knew Infinity family at the premiere Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: But did you learn anything new? Did you feel you can understand more of Ramanujan's work?

MB: I think philosophically I do understand now much more so than I did before. And I've been continuing to learn. We've been doing a lot of talking with some of the mathematicians that feel like this is one of the first films that's portrayed them in a real light. So they've been thrilled. In the course of it I've learned so much more that I wish I could have put some of that in the film.

AKT: There's your sequel!

MB [laughing]: I don't know about that.

AKT: You wrote a film about music, called London Town?

MB: Yeah, a film called London Town that is about a young man who is coming up in London in the 1970s and falls in love with the band The Clash.

Matt Brown in front of Weegee photos at the Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas
Matt Brown in front of Weegee photos at the Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Joe Strummer.

MB: Joe Strummer, yeah. It's a coming of age story. Very, very different than this but still sort of socio-political.

AKT: Any connection between the two?

MB: Passion for art! They are artists.

AKT: Do you remember the very first Jeremy Irons movie you saw?

MB: Reversal Of Fortune might have been it.

AKT: Or one that particularly stuck in your mind?

MB: Reversal stuck pretty good. That was probably one of the first.

S Ramanujan with Sir Francis Spring (Stephen Fry)
S Ramanujan with Sir Francis Spring (Stephen Fry)

AKT: Did you ever see him on stage?

MB: I have not seen him on stage and I wanted to go to see him just now [in Long Day's Journey Into Night in Bristol] and I'm brokenhearted that I didn't get to see it. I'm hoping that it would come to New York at some point. He has taught me more than anybody else about filmmaking in my life. So I'm eternally grateful to Jeremy.

AKT: Was he immediately gung-ho to be onboard?

MB: One hundred percent! We met and he said that day he wanted to do it. He got my passion for it and I think that resonated with him. I gave him a book to read, The Mathematician's Apology, written by his character, GH Hardy. I think that further sealed it.

Read what Jeremy Irons had to say about The Man Who Knew Infinity and Richard II.

The Man Who Knew Infinity opens in the US on April 29.

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