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In a cold country

25 May 2016

Cinema | Sylvia Lawson reviews Rams and The Man Who Knew Infinity

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Absences: Sigurður Sigurjónsson as Gummi in Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams.

Absences: Sigurður Sigurjónsson as Gummi in Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams.


In discussion afterwards, no one can think of another film from Iceland; we learn here that, however surprisingly, the country also has a film-funding institution, and it is noted in the end credits that this production had support from a Danish source as well. The film consciousness of the presumed audience is not to be underestimated; Rams is a very sophisticated piece of work. The story centres on the fraught relationship of two brothers, and a major issue with their rural property. There, a whole flock of sheep, found to be infected with a contagious disease, must be destroyed.

Of the brothers, Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), loving his animals, is devastated, but does what he must; Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson), who is at odds with the world altogether, disobeys the general order. It must be negotiated between the two ageing men, who haven’t spoken to each other in years.

But the story isn’t the film, only its spine. The content of the film is the place, rural Iceland, and the film addresses audiences that won’t have been there. The sheep gather and run over bleak, dry grasslands in summer, and in the winter, the setting for most of the film, they huddle under shelter.

Around them are the spreading icy landscapes, areas of snow in dark stretches of rock. In a communal gathering, the isolation of the brothers is apparent, although there’s a visible society there, only briefly met. One young couple enters the story, only to make their farewells; the icy world has beaten them. Except for one authority figure among those who arrive to deliver the shepherds the stern imperative, the young wife is the only woman seen. The brothers’ world is one without women, and their absence is one dimension, something felt.

The gift of the film is there, in its delineation of that kind of struggle and what it can make of its subjects. You can read Cain and Abel into the tale of the brothers, and put their entanglement of enmity and mutual need at its centre; that is what’s affirmed in the end. At the same time, it all happens where the physical world – rocks and snow, mist and ice – finally determines everything. That environment shouldn’t for a moment be seen as symbolic of anything but itself, and part of the film’s excellence is in the way that the place, Iceland, is visibly and unavoidably there.


Rams is cinema; the fusion of sound and image is indispensable to the build-up of meaning. The Man Who Knew Infinity is not cinema in the same way. It is rather a very good film: something like a novel with excellent illustrations, and the difference matters. It also matters that what we are given here is evidently close to history; eminent academic mathematicians have praised its version of the story of a short-lived Indian genius.

The time is the first world war; the main setting is Cambridge, with the trappings of English academic privilege in the period as it can now be imagined. The milieu is potently created; it could be a bit hard to believe in the snobbery and racism in the middle-aged and elderly male scholars, for whom the presence of a brilliant young Indian mathematician from Madras, Srinivasa Ramanujan, is disconcerting, positively untoward. He is literally out of place, and this is the more vividly conveyed because we have seen his home setting, and the incomprehension of his beautiful young wife, at the beginning.

We have also seen, and are impelled to take in, an instance of radical cultural difference. For Ramanujan, mathematics is nothing less than the mapping of the mind of God, and there are therefore limits to his capacity to expound its paths. For the scholars who judge him, it is an entirely secular pursuit, and some of them find his apparent simplicity, with his intrepidly quiet Indian presence, offensive. The tensions are made clear in an array of fine performances, in particular Dev Patel’s as Ramanujan, and even more eloquently, Jeremy Irons’s as the young man’s mentor, friend and defender, G.H. Hardy. It is a complex presence, conveying a particular kind of sadness, which may be read as coming from a deeply scholarly life in which there is too little else. •

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Time to seize the moment in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process is showing early signs of movement, writes Alan Keenan. But the government needs to redouble its commitment to good governance and justice

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Slow progress: Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (left) and president Maithripala Sirisena during the ceremony in Colombo on 18 May marking the seventh anniversary of the end of the civil war. Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

Slow progress: Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (left) and president Maithripala Sirisena during the ceremony in Colombo on 18 May marking the seventh anniversary of the end of the civil war. Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images