The British actor discusses his role as a brilliant mathematician alongside co-star Dev Patel in Matthew Brown’s period drama.

The Man Who Knew Infinity

In Matthew Brown’s The Man Who Knew Infinity (sold by Mister Smith Entertainment), Jeremy Irons plays Cambridge don G.H. Hardy, a brilliant mathematician in his own right but one equally famous for mentoring the young Indian genius Srinivasa Ramanujan as for his own work.

The film, set at the start of the First World War, opens with a voice-over from Irons which, for many viewers, will rekindle memories of the actor in one of his most famous early roles, as Charles Ryder in Granada’s 1981 TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited.

Since playing Ryder, Irons has had an extraordinarily varied career. He has been in arthouse movies and blockbusters.

He voiced Scar in The Lion King and was a villain in Die Hard With A Vengeance. He played a pope in TV’s The Borgias. He co-stars in Ben Wheatley’s High Rise (also screening at TIFF); plays Olympics official Avery Brundage in Stephen Hopkins’ new movie Race;and will soon follow in Michael Caine’s footseps as Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.

In real life, G.H. Hardy was a very curious character who couldn’t even bear to look at his reflection in mirrors. How did you see his character?

He was certainly not a man who preened at all. He was a man who was rather uncomfortable in his own skin and with his sexuality. He was so much in love with figures. It was a way he could escape from life, through his mathematics.

Did you know about Ramanujan before making the film?

I didn’t at all. The first thing I read was a speech Hardy gave which he extended and put in a monograph about mathematics. It is quite extraordinary to read for somebody like me who is not mathematical at all. My brain just doesn’t deal with mathematics. For him, mathematics was an art. As I think about art, drama and theatre, for him, that excitement, colour and romance was in figures. It [mathematics] stopped for me being a dry subject.

How did you see the relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan?

The relationship is typically English and understated. He was just slowly falling for this young man who loved the things he loved and was brilliant. Yet the relationship is entirely unspoken. Homosexuality was very interesting in that period.

How much were people aware of it? How much were they aware of it and just did not talk about it? How much were they unsure? Hardy certainly went on to have a fairly constant relationship with an Oxford Don later in life. He obviously faced up to that side of himself. I just thought it was a fascinating story. 

The opening voice-over can’t help but rekindle memories of Brideshead.

Yes, Charles Ryder was pretty much of a closed book, not an Englishman used to displaying his emotions and so very like GH Hardy. I did see similarities.

Did you enjoy working with Dev Patel?

Of course, I had seen in Dev in Slumdog Millionaire. I thought he was wonderful but never got to meet him. He is very different physically from Ramanujan, who was short and podgy and not very visually stirring… and Dev is a gazelle! He had the big journey through the film and, in a way, Hardy was an observer and a joiner to a certain extent. I was fascinated to see how he worked and to see the depth in which he worked. We became great friends.

The English establishment doesn’t come out well from the film. What is your perspective on that?

I don’t think it has changed that much. Universities are very cut off from life anyway. At Oxford and Cambridge, you can still find people like that although maybe not racist and quite so inward looking. We were in a colonial era. India was a colony and the Indians were all lumped into one bunch. I saw them as men of their time. I tried very hard not to judge people in a period film by our modern mores.

They had a completely different attitude toward war because they hadn’t had the First World War, they hadn’t had the Second World War, they hadn’t had the Vietnam War, they hadn’t had the Korean war - they hadn’t had modern warfare. I always respect that and never judge when I am dealing with period characters.