Stephen Fry’s source material – and influence – is all over this humorous tale.
When a film has Stephen Fry’s name attached to it, expectations start rocketing skywards. In the case of The Hippopotamus, we don’t get to see him, but the echo of his voice resounds in this adaptation of his novel from 1994. It’s in the elaborately crafted turn of phrase that constantly flows from the frequently sozzled mouth of the central character, Ted (Roger Allam).
He’s a poet – probably a decent one in his day but the combination of whisky and failed relationships has turned him into a misanthropic, self-pitying hack who can’t hold down a job as a theatre critic and certainly hasn’t written a poem in years. His god daughter visits him with a proposition: go to the stately pile belonging to an old friend and find out what’s going on. Specifically, are there miracles happening there or not? She won’t tell him any more than that. He has to see what’s there to be seen.
It’s a set up that wouldn’t look out of place in something by Julian Fellowes, with the American who’s married into money and taken over the country estate, turning himself in a country gent. At least he doesn’t have to resort to weddings or a wildlife park, as Ted pithily observes.
It’s a film in love with language, specifically Ted’s love of devoting his extensive vocabulary to streams of literary invective. It’s what gets him the sack from his drama critic job. But there are times when curses will only do and Ted’s pretty good at those. When he gets to the stately home, you just know he’s going to come a cropper, be it staggering in the lake, knocking over his bottle of scotch or falling into a ditch. The countryside most certainly isn’t his usual stomping ground and, as he’s not the most elegant of men, he essentially blunders his way around the estate, fuelled by whisky and its consequences. Yet his torrents of abuse reflect when they were written, having less of the profanities that you’d associate with Malcolm Tucker from The Thick Of It. Fry’s novel was published ten years before Tucker first turned the air blue on TV.
That language has the privilege of being delivered by one of the most distinguished voices in British acting, that of Roger Allam. Usually seen in supporting roles, he’s cast in the lead here and he’s exactly the right choice: he can do world-weary pompousness almost in his sleep, but here he has to include bitterness, anger and cynicism. He’s not convinced that there are miracles at the house, despite what everybody’s telling him, although he does get to the root of the mystery, in what looks like a denouement straight out of the pages of an Agatha Christie mystery.
The Hippopotamus never sets out to give you uproarious laughs: smiles are more the order of the day, as well as the occasional chuckle and a relish for some of Ted’s language. While it’s clearly intended to be a comedy of manners, it’s doesn’t quite pull it off, but its redeeming features almost make up for it, Allam’s performance and his dialogue in particular. It also comes complete with a decent cast, including a permanently smiling Fiona Shaw as the lady of the house, Matthew Modine as her American husband, Tim McInnerny going right over the top as a camp house guest and Russell Tovey as Ted’s long-suffering boss at the newspaper. And, if you saw Chicken last year, you’ll spot no less than Scott Chambers in a small role as Ted’s son.
The thought of how Fry himself would have played Ted constantly lurks in the back of your mind but, ultimately, the poet that nobody wants in residence well and truly belongs to Allam. He eventually discovers the truth – and the truth also comes to him.