Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
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.
Remember, remember the Fifth of November/Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot/I see no reason/Why gunpowder treason/Should ever be forgot. Those immortal lines commemorate the British tradition of remembering an attempted attack on Parliament with an annual celebration of bonfires and fireworks. In solidarity with our friends across the pond consider commemorating the occasion by watching one of the following.
Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot (2004) This BBC mini-series directed by Scottish filmmaker Gillies MacKinnon (The Escapist, Hideous Kinky) is loosely based on the lives of Mary Queen of Scots (French actress Clemence Poesy of In Bruges, and War and Peace) and her son James VI of Scotland (the one and only Robert Carlyle of Trainspotting, The Fully Monty, and Once Upon A Time. Catherine McCormack of Braveheart, Dangerous Beauty, and Shadow of the Vampire plays Elizabeth I and a young Michael Fassbender made one of his earliest appearances in the role of Guy Fawkes himself.
The Gunpowder Plot: Exploding the Legend(2005) This television series hosted by Richard Hammond and designed to coincide with the 400th year anniversary of the plot actually recreates elements of the Gunpowder Plot itself. The Houses of Parliament are reconstructed as they were in 1605, using period methods whenever possible. The “Houses” were then stocked with mannequins representing, commoners, nobles, and of course the King. Then they actually blow it up using the gunpowder materials in the original plot to see how the plan would have worked. The next part of the program has Hammond going into a counterfactual speculation of the effect on British history had the plot succeeded.
V for Vendetta (2006) This dystopian political thriller directed by James McTeigue (The Raven, Sense8) and was written by the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas, Sense8). Based on the Alan Moore limited comic series it imagines an alternative future where Great Britain has been taken over by a neo-Fascist regime. Hugo Weaving (Lord of the Rings, The Matrix) is spellbinding as mysterious anarchist V who wears a Guy Fawkes mask and seeks to ignite a revolution against the current regime that will begin with his plans to blow up Parliament on Guy Fawkes Day the following year. V enlists the unwitting Evey (young Natalie Portman) to his cause all the meanwhile being investigated by Detective Finch (Stephen Rea). You also get memorable turns by John Hurt, Stephen Fry, and Rupert Graves among many others and some great use of the 1812 overture.
Attack the Block (2011) This delightful sci-fi, comedy, horror adventure film was written and directed by Joe Cornish (Hot Fuzz, Ant Man.) Starring John Boyega (Finn from Star Wars), Jodie Whittaker (Broadchurch) and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead) it takes place in a South London council estate. On Guy Fawkes night a young local street gang suddenly have to defend themselves from an alien invasion. Fortunately the young gang members in question turn out to be very tough and very resourceful indeed. It became a massive cult hit with a 90% fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes.
Gunpowder 5/11: The Greatest Terror Plot(2014) Adam Kemp (Churchill’s First World War) wrote, directed, and produced this dramatization using the actual words of Thomas Wintour (Jamie Thomas King of The Tudors, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) Guy Fawkes (Jamie MacLachlan of Maleficent and EastEnders) and other interrogators. It tells of the events from Wintour’s recruitment of Guy Fawkes and his brother to their capture and final days.
All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing… and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn’t want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent? Antonio Salieri in Amadeus
What makes a genius? Are these individuals born? The result of excellent schools and diligent parents? Or does God bestow on certain people exceptional talents? In Amadeus, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham in his Oscar-winning role), railed against the creator for choosing to bless not him but Mozart with the enviable ability to create music that touched the soul.
In The Man Who Knew Infinity, Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel in a multifaceted performance), is a genius in another field, mathematical formulas gushing forth impressing the best analytical minds at Cambridge. When asked by his mentor, professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), where that inspiration comes from, Ramanujan says from God. Hardy, an atheist, finds it hard to accept that explanation. But what Ramamujan manages to put on paper continues to astound and certainly invites the idea that somehow a deity is involved.
The film takes some liberties from the true story upon which it is based. Ramanujan, an Indian from Madras (now Chennai), had little formal education. Without being able to write on paper, a luxury in his impoverished village, Ramanujan writes his formulas in the few books he possesses as well as with chalk on stones in the temple. Needing to support his wife and mother, he lands a job as an accountant with a condescending British boss (Stephen Fry, in a fleeting appearance), but continues his entreaties to be published by writing to Hardy at Cambridge. Intrigued by the formulas Ramanujan sends, Hardy invites him to England. Thus begins a relationship that will weather discrimination, numerous confrontations with the Cambridge hierarchy, as well as the misery that descends on the country during World War I. Alone in a foreign country, Ramanujan battles loneliness by immersing himself in his work. His letters to his wife, Janaki (Devika Bhise), are intercepted by his mother who resents his marriage. When Ramanujan falls ill with tuberculosis, he believes he has been abandoned by his family with no one but Hardy to come to his aid.
Hardy pushes Ramanujan to show proof of his work, a roadmap explaining how he arrives at his formulas. But Ramanujan’s mind doesn’t work that way. (Any math student who has been chided by a teacher to show the steps rather than just write down the obvious answer will understand Ramanujan’s situation.) Hardy, however, understands the academic hurdles Ramanujan must clear in order to be accepted. In the end, he does just that becoming the second Indian to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and the first Indian Fellow at Trinity. Even today, his calculations are seen as groundbreaking, influencing not only computer development and economics but also the study of black holes.
Patel, whom we know from a string of hits – Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel, as well as HBO’s Newsroom – tackles a more serious role here, portraying Ramanujan’s determination to have the world pay attention to his formulas. But he also displays the mathematician’s vulnerable side. While he’s made it to Cambridge, he’s not accepted by either the students or the professors, spending solitary days and nights in his room, cooking his own inedible meat-free meals. When the Cambridge green is taken over by tents sheltering injured soldiers, Ramanujan finds himself a target by those who resent his presence.
As Hardy, Irons is an academic with a cause. Hardy plays by the rules, but isn’t afraid to thwart those rules for Ramanujan recognizing the young man’s talents. Irons benefits with support from Toby Jones as J.E. Littlewood and Jeremy Northman as Bertrand Russell. The trio form an alliance to advance Ramanujan’s cause.
Films focusing on math – A Beautiful Mind and The Imitation Game – have defied the odds and done well with theater audiences. The Man who Knew Infinity may not rise to that level, particularly in the run up to summer movies when superheroes dominate. Yet geniuses are superheroes, brilliant minds that raise the bar and continue to wield influence. Chances are after seeing this film, you will find ourself launching into discussions about the genius factor and which individuals have earned that distinction.
The Man Who Knew Infinity opens nationwide May 6, 2016.