A Film a Week - The Hippopotamus

The title Hippopotamus comes from one of the T.S. Elliot’s poems in which the animal in case might seem so strong, but is only vulnerable piece of flesh and blood. The hippopotamus here is Ted Wallace (perfectly cast Roger Allam), once a considerable poet talent, now a jaded, even cynical alcoholic “singing for his supper” as a theatre critic. We see him on his job, in the middle of the crowd on an appalling Titus Andronicus production, with a glass of whiskey in his hand, loudly commenting how bad the play is and even starting a fight with actors, making the whole thing at least interesting. Later on he loses his job after insulting his editor. He is just that kind of guy.

His “luck” is about to change after a chance encounter with Jane (Emily Berrington), a daughter of his ex-girlfriend who might or might not be dying of leukemia. She hires him to investigate the series of miracles on her family’s estate to establish her real chances to live. The problem is that the estate belongs to his once friend, Lord Logan (Matthew Modine) with whom he shares a complicated history and the miracle worker is Logan’s younger son and Wallace’s godson David (Tommy Knight) who actually believes that he is somehow special or that he at least has a special, poetic soul.

Wallace is by no means a detective or an investigative journalist, so his “shaggy dog on a wild goose chase” (his own words!) turns from a ripe Woody Allen darkly funny thrashing of art to a comedic, murderless Agatha Christie-like country house mystery in which we can see all the familiar upper-class types having their own angles or at least having to say something, with him being usually the smartest, but the most cynical and skeptical guy in the room.

Hippopotamus is an adaptation of a well-known Stephen Fry’s novel, and it feels fresh with a clever script written by Blanche McIntyre and Tom Hodgson. The novel is written like a series of letters, often drifting from subject is being kept here in a more film-friendly way, with Wallace serving as the narrator as well as the protagonist. It might not seem the freshest of all the ideas, and the script is relying to heavily on it, but it works as his inner monologue laced with poison is quite fun to hear.

Finally, it all depends on the acting ensemble which looks well-trained and especially on its main actor, present in virtually every scene as an active character or as our point of view. British character actor Roger Allam in on of his rare big roles is actually doing a great job here, pulling most of the weight and selling the whole film. The director John Jencks is mostly invisible throughout the film, but his job was practically done with casting. Hippopotamus might not be the most original film in the world, but it is definitely worth seeing.

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