Based on Stephen Fry’s novel The Hippopotamus, and brought to the silver screen by director John Jencks, the flavour and indelible, idiosyncratic tone of the author is imbued in this faithful adaptation – except in some regards, perhaps too much so. The narration within this endeavour is so prominent, it feels like reading a book, as though we’ve accidentally turned the audio description on. Plus, and much like reading a book, you feel the need to pause for the night and continue on the following day, for there’s plenty here to digest.

Roger Allam plays Ted Wallace, a formerly respected poet, who now masquerades as a journalist, really only in it for the free drinks at events he’s hired to cover. Often seen stumbling around, glass of whisky in hand, offering his opinions for free to anyone who dares listen, he is sacked from his job following an outburst at a stage production. But he’s swiftly offered more work, as a blast from the past turns up in the form of Jane Swann (Emily Berrington) who explains that she’s terminally ill. Elusive about her condition, and the job she requires of Ted, she simply sends him to Swafford Hall – the abode of an old friend (Michael Logan) and the journalist’s godson David (Tommy Knight) – with the promise of a miracle, which she wants him to investigate.

The Hippopotamus Now, and you may well have gathered this as you sit back amazed at the fountain of knowledge that Stephen Fry is as he reels off facts on QI – not many of us are as intelligent as he is, so to adhere to a character that speaks with those same dulcet tones he carries, so eloquent and poetic, and gloriously brutal at times, we need a strand we can relate to, in order to embody the role at hand. Allan does a remarkable job letting us in, as you believe in his intellect, and yet focus on the vulnerability. He’s incredibly flawed, and this is essential, for it allows us something we can cling on to and relate with – because we certainly can’t with his intellect. Ted makes for an absorbing protagonist too, who keeps us compelled and invested throughout.

Given the mention of the word ‘miracle’ above, it alludes to a feature that grows somewhat surrealistic in parts. Thanks to this fantastical edge, it allows Jencks a freedom to be creative, to be heightened and have no obligation to realism. Tim McInnerny’s Oliver Mills is emblematic of this notion, so overstated and overtly theatrical, nobody is quite like him in real life, but then, this film lets us know early on that isn’t really real life at all. Yet in spite of the surrealism the film never loses sight of its humanity, and this is enforced by the fact we’re adopting the perspective of such a cynical protagonist in Ted. As the lead he represents us in many ways, and we feel that if we can won over, then surely so can we.

Sadly, however, the ending is a little unfulfilling. As a film that comes to life so much so in the screenplay and the characters that adorn this affluent landscape, eventually the time does come where the narrative becomes the most prominent aspect, and we need some clarity to our finale – and yet despite the intriguing, captivating set-up, it’s the pay-off where this title falls short.

The Hippopotamus is released on May 28th

REVIEW OVERVIEW
The Hippopotamus
Previous articleWin Blow on Blu-ray
Next articleExclusive: Director Chris Smith on road movie Detour
Stefan Pape is the reviews and interviews editor for the site. Considering his favourite thing to do is watch a movie and then annoy everybody by talking about it - it's safe to say he's in the right job.