‘The Hippopotamus’: Film Review | Palm Springs 2017

The Hippopotamus -still 2- H 2017
Courtesy of Electric Shadow Company
The wordplay’s the thing.

Roger Allam plays a whiskey-swilling washed-up poet in a comedy that marks the first screen adaptation of Stephen Fry’s work as a novelist.

Should a Christopher Hitchens biopic ever arise, Roger Allam would be the perfect actor to play him. Ted Wallace, the lapsed poet he portrays in The Hippopotamus, has never occupied the same literary heights as Hitchens, and his tumble down the writerly food chain finds him turning “whiskey into journalism” as a theater critic. But Ted’s crackling observations — the fuel that drives the movie — have the fluency and rapier wit of a diligent, erudite mind. The role is a welcome lead turn for Allam, who’s more than up for the plummy putdowns, as well as the dashes of slapstick, in director John Jencks’ hit-and-miss screen translation of Stephen Fry’s 1994 novel. 

Screenwriters Tom Hodgson and Blanche McIntyre have compressed and streamlined the densely populated source material, yet the mystery that serves as the story’s engine, involving a series of miracle healings at an English country manor, never really gets humming. Against the rich, voluminous linguistic calisthenics of the central character (subtitles in other languages would be a challenge), the rest of the story tends to blur. And Allam pretty much compensates for the missing dramatic oomph. 

Jencks and his collaborators do, however, invent a few juicy details, beginning with the atrocious beefcake production of Titus Andronicus that provokes a mid-performance protest from the besotted Ted, which promptly gets him sacked from his newspaper job. Almost as promptly, an unusual and very lucrative business proposition arrives from an ex-girlfriend’s daughter. Jane (Emily Berrington) claims to have been cured of leukemia while at Swafford Hall, the estate of her uncle, who was once Ted’s closest friend. She wants him to investigate the “miracle” — a notion he finds preposterous, but it would be hard to find an unemployed writer, especially one with a taste for single malt Scotch, who could resist the £100,000 paycheck that comes with the assignment. 

At Swafford, Ted finds his old pal Michael Logan, played by a miscast Matthew Modine, less than happy to see him. Meant to be a robust man of the world, Michael is instead a recessive cipher, as indecisive as his accent. He’s still unforgiving over Ted’s public humiliation of Michael’s sister Rebecca (Geraldine Somerville), a televised offense that's eventually revealed in a flashback worth waiting for. By contrast, Michael’s wife, Anne (Fiona Shaw), offers a warm welcome, and confides in Ted that she’s concerned about the mildly transgressive behavior of her younger son, David (Tommy Knight). To Ted’s profound dismay, the sex-obsessed teenager, who is his godson, fancies himself a poet and, worse, the possessor of a gifted soul. 

Even though the filmmakers have significantly reduced the book’s dramatis personae, the relationships take their time coming into focus, and some never quite do. Into the mix, which includes David’s good-natured older brother, Simon (Dean Ridge) — who has none of his sibling’s pretensions — guests arrive, as they inevitably do at an English manor. French socialite Valerie (Lyne Renee) takes every opportunity to belittle her ugly-duckling daughter (Emma Curtis), while over-the-top theater director Oliver (Tim McInnerny) flails and shares lewd reminiscences over the dinner table. 

As it emerges that David has convinced the entire household of his “gifts,” the story pits Ted’s blunt pragmatism against the New Age wishful thinking of everybody else. The theme also plays out in a concise exchange between Ted and his godson, the latter subscribing to the romantic notion of writing as an expression of pure spirit, while the poet who hasn’t written a poem in nearly 30 years insists that literary output is the result of not just inspiration but hard work. The screenplay crystallizes this idea effectively, even amid the comic busyness — pratfalls, fellatio interruptus and equine molestation among the doings. 

Between drinking bouts and Skype chats with Jane (updating the novel’s epistolary passages), Ted conducts his half-hearted detective work. The puzzle pieces consist of stories of David’s healing touch as the antidote to his mother’s asthma, Oliver’s angina and even the mysterious ailment of a horse named Lilac — all of which culminates in a semi-sendup of the classic case-solving climax, with Ted confronting the concerned parties in a room, like a non-debonair Nick Charles. 

Other than a couple of well-chosen tracks by Louis Armstrong, nothing in the film comes close to the snap and spark of Ted’s profanity-laced verbal pyrotechnics. Even the grand Italianate architecture of the 18th-century villa West Wycombe Park feels a bit drab beside the wordplay. In both voiceover and dialogue, whether he’s dismissing Wordsworth, Byron or social niceties, Allam delivers every mellifluously malign morsel with such unforced conviction that it barely feels like a performance. 

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival
Production company: Electric Shadow

Cast: Roger Allam, Fiona Shaw, Matthew Modine, Tommy Knight, Emily Berrington, Dean Ridge, Emma Curtis, Tim McInnerny, Geraldine Somerville, Lyne Renee, John Standing
Director: John Jencks
Screenwriters: Tom Hodgson, Blanche McIntyre, based on the novel by Stephen Fry
Producers: Jay Taylor, Alexa Seligman
Executive producers: Christopher Little, Steve Clark-Hall, Hal Brotherton-Ratcliffe
Director of photography: Angus Hudson
Production designer: Stéphane Collange
Costume designer: Annie Hardinge
Editors: John Richards, Robin Hill
Composers: Samuel Karl Bohn, Antonio Sanchez
Casting: Daniel Hubbard, Gemma Sykes

Not rated, 89 minutes