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.
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