The film adaptation of Stephen Fry’s The Hippopotamus is no less an exposé of the writer’s views and temperament than is his novel – Fry is brilliantly witty, unapologetically bawdy, and mercilessly cynical.
Directed by John Jencks, The Hippopotamus contains cleverly written dialogue, but particularly superb is the caustic and hilarious inner monologue of the main character, Ted Wallace (Roger Allam). A bloated, cantankerous, scornful, derisive, outspoken, misanthropic, sceptical, pessimistic alcoholic poet who has not written anything worthwhile in eons and manages to offend everyone, Wallace is like a classic washed-up boozy detective in the form of a has-been bard; but his verbal quips are priceless.
Opening with a smashed Wallace being expulsed from a theatre after spewing diatribes at actors in a play he’s reviewing, then subsequently insulting his boss (Russell Tovey) and losing his job, the film manifests his catastrophic haemorrhage of temper as a segue to a new adventure. Drowning his resentments at a local bar, he meets his ex-girlfriend’s daughter (Emily Berrington) who hires him as a sleuth of sorts, sending him to some old friends’ (Matthew Modine, Fiona Shaw) estate in a quest for the truth – without disclosing what he should be seeking: “How is one supposed to investigate ‘nothing in particular?’ It’s like hiring Sherlock Holmes when no crime has been committed”. The viewer can deduce, however, that the mystery concerns rumours of miraculous healing.
It seems every British detective story contains a manor house with eccentric characters, and here Wallace is a whiskey-swilling, sneering, literary Inspector Clouseau. Describing the posh environment as populated by “tight-ass bourgeois and nervous bohemians”, Wallace focuses his attention on his godson (Tommy Knight). The teenager is soon revealed to have possible healing powers, but the plot summarily twists, exposing darker potentialities.
The writing in this piece is remarkable, characterisations are outstanding, and the acting is excellent. With the beautiful English countryside and stately home – and lush, precise cinematography – the work would be faultless were it not for a stumbling plot and questionably casual references to rape, beastiality and paedophilia. The movie promises an exceptional, clever, enlightening narrative but doesn’t follow through. Instead a cynical boozer’s bad attitude triumphs and underage sex with anyone and anything is presented as nothing unusual. The only redeeming element to the finale is that Wallace’s creativity has been reawakened; but does the viewer really care at this point?
The Hippopotamus is released nationwide on 28th May 2017.
Watch the trailer for Hippopotamus here: