Ted Wallace (Roger Allam) is a famous poet who hasn’t written a poem in decades. When he isn’t getting to the bottom of a whiskey bottle, he’s reviewing plays for a newspaper. Attending a performance of Titus Andronicus where the muscle-bound actors look like they came from Thunder Down Under, he loudly voices his disapproval, prompting one of the actors to dive into the audience. Wallace delivers a knock out punch and knocks himself out of a job.
He receives a surprise visit from Jane, the daughter of an ex-girlfriend, wanting to pay him a large sum – 100,000 pounds – to investigate goings-on at Swafford Hall, the estate of her uncle, Michael Logan (Matthew Modine). Jane (played by a radiant Emily Berrington), was diagnosed with leukemia and given three months to live. After visiting Swafford, she is now cancer-free. Without giving Wallace any more information, she wants him to visit the estate and find out the miracle behind her cure.
John Standing and Tommy Knight
A skeptic by nature, Wallace is inclined to turn down her proposal. But her earnest approach (and, of course, the money), convince him to make the trip. Michael’s son, David (Tommy Knight), is Wallace’s godson. Although he hasn’t seen David in years, paying him a visit seems like a good cover story.
Arriving at Swafford, Wallace receives a mixed reception. While David is thrilled to see his godfather, Michael is outwardly hostile. Michael’s wife, Anne (Fiona Shaw), is more welcoming, confiding in Wallace that she’s worried about David and believes that a visit from his godfather may help. Since David has also begun writing poetry, Anne hopes Wallace will find another way to get close to his godson. (That tactic proves futile once Wallace hears some of the young man’s writings and deems them abominable.)
Wallace soon understands that it’s David he’s there to study. The young man is being credited with saving his mother’s life when she had a serious asthma attack. After Anne collapsed, David’s older brother, Simon (David Ridge), began CPR, but when David placed hands on his mother, she recovered. Wallace finds himself witnessing firsthand another of David’s “miracles.” One of the estate’s horses, Lilac, falls ill, and David’s healing touch is credited with saving the animal’s life. David’s grandfather also performed miracles, so Michael believes his son has inherited the “gift.”
Tim McInnerny, Roger Allam, and Lyne Renee
Others visiting Swafford Hall are eager to jump onto the miracle bandwagon. Valerie (Lyne Renee), a French socialite, hopes that David can turn her plain daughter, Clara (Emma Curtis), into a beauty. A flamboyant theater director, Oliver (Tim McInnerny), gets caught up in the drama, causing him to espouse at length over dinner, miracle (really lurid) moments from his own past.
Wallace keeps in touch with Jane via Skype, but even after hearing about David’s supposed miracles, he cannot offer her any reassurance that her healing is real or lasting. Wallace is not one to believe in miracles, even where his own writing is concerned. Yet after the events at Swafford, he suddenly finds himself writing again, two poems literally spilling out of him. A miracle?
Based on Stephen Fry’s 1994 novel and directed by John Jencks, The Hippopotamus provides the perfect vehicle for Roger Allam as Wallace. Fans of the PBS series Endeavor will recognize Allam as Detective Inspector Fred Thursday, forced to put up with an impossible chief superintendent. Here, Allam as Wallace doesn’t suffer fools. While we never hear any of Wallace’s poetry, his witty and, at times, cutting speeches (aimed at individuals or recited as voice-overs), hint at his literary prowess. Allam makes the most of these moments, delivering them with relish. His performance, as well as all that romping around a gorgeous English estate, makes The Hippopotamus an enjoyable film.
The Hippopotamus will be screened as part of FilmFest DC from April 20 through April 30. Go to the website for more information and to purchase tickets.
Photos courtesy of Lightyear Entertainment