“X+Y”, a feature film directed by Morgan Matthews (111 minutes)

(Disclaimer: This is not impartial comment. Geoff Smith actively supported the making of this film.)

The film “X+Y” has been screened at film festivals for several months. It will appear on general release in local cinemas in many parts of the world, starting in March 2015. Thus far it has received wide critical acclaim. It is a comedy drama, set against the background of mathematical olympiads. The Director Morgan Matthews made the BBC documentary “Beautiful Young Minds” which concentrated on the people attempting to get into the UK team at IMO 2006 in Slovenia. Indeed, the Director had UNK Observer B status at that IMO.

The script was written by James Graham. He attended some of IMO 2009 in Germany to see the real thing in action.

The central character of “X+Y” is a young mathematician, Nathan Ellis, who is played by Asa Butterfield (“Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”, “Hugo”, “Ender’s Game”). The very young Nathan is played by another actor, Edward Baker-Close. Nathan’s mathematical talent is recognised when he is very young, and he also receives an Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis, putting him at the mild end of the autistic spectrum. He also has synesthesia, so he experiences number and pattern through colours. His loving mother is played by Sally Hawkins (“Made in Dagenham”, “Blue Jasmine”), and his maths coach by Rafe Spall (“Prometheus”, “Life of Pi”).

Eventually Nathan’s activities in maths competitions lead him to meet other young people with similar talents, some on the spectrum and some not. The UK IMO team leader is played by Eddie Marsan (“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”) and a girl on the Chinese IMO team is played by Jo Yang.

There are countless reviews on the internet, and the opportunity to have the plot spoiled is there for those that want to take it. Here I will write about the film from the point of view of a maths competitions enthusiast. In the end Nathan feels that he must choose between love and the IMO. I will not spoil the experience of the future viewer by revealing which he selects.

The director kindly allowed me access to a draft of the script at an early stage, so that I could make mathematical comments. Morgan Matthews was determined that the portrayal of maths competitions should be as accurate as possible. To that end Lee Zhuo Zhao (UNK6 in 2006) was recruited and cast as a non-speaking UK team member, and so was on hand to ensure that the mathematical references were appropriate. Also he can control a punt well, which was handy for some Cambridge scenes.

UKMT and the IMO were approached to allow the use of their symbols, and gave permission. Birgit van Dalen, who played such a large role in organising IMO 2011 (and is now chair of the European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad) supplied lots of advice which enabled the film-makers to simulate the running of an IMO. The British Mathematical Olympiad question used at length in the film is BMO2 2013.

Several real IMO participants appear as extras in the film, and I supplied a home-made IMO-style paper to keep such students interested during the filming of the IMO exam. Prof John Webb of Cape Town is clearly visible in some footage of a real IMO ceremony. There is a very clear shot of Andrew Carlotti (BGGG), the UK student who currently has the best IMO medal record. Another prominent extra is Joseph Myers (GG) who has a recent career as an IMO co-ordinator (and also runs the IT for EGMO). There were others among the extras, but they are less easy to spot. I have a very brief cameo role, visible at the back of the screen very near the end, just as someone is leaving an exam.

While some people will object to yet another portrayal of a mathematician as someone who is socially challenged, my view is that the overall impact of this film on attitudes to maths and maths competitions will be very positive. The film includes several heart-warming studies of love, some very good jokes, and many opportunities for weeping enthusiasts to reach for their tissues. It treats Asperger’s syndrome sympathetically and sensitively, and in my view with considerable insight.

I hope that the attention that this film gets around the world (it has an in-flight distribution contract) will lead to tens of thousands more young people getting involved in maths competitions, and more people and organisations coming forward to help us to develop and expand mathematical olympiads. This excellent intellectual and social activity provides an important stepping stone in the development of many bright young people from a diverse collection of cultures.

Written by Geoff Smith, Chair of the IMO Advisory Board.