The Hippopotamus, 2017.
Directed by John Jencks.
Starring Tim McInnerny, Roger Allam, Matthew Modine, Emily Berrington, Russell Tovey, and Lyne Renee.
Out of luck, out of cash and recently sacked theatre critic Ted Wallace (Roger Allam) has a chance encounter with relative Jane Swann. Creatively bereft and in need of money Wallace agrees to investigate goings on at Swafford Manor, where past indiscretions, present day revelations and talk of miracles all come home to roost.
Adapted from a novel of the same name, The Hippopotamus takes murder mystery tropes, keeps the mystery, substitutes murder and gives us a gloriously odious washed up poet Poirot to reckon with. Roger Allam’s Ted Wallace is pompously appealing from the first frame, lacing his cyanide dipped voiceover with luxuriant expletives, intellectual entitlement and an abundant surplus of vulgar vocabulary.
His is an endless life of empty whiskey bottles, venal verbiage and intolerance for anyone who dares challenge that elitist attitude. In short Allam makes The Hippopotamus a comically caustic affair seamlessly scene stealing whilst remaining affably repellent. An alcohol addled Columbo clone with a gift for aristocratic slapstick, which makes this feel closer to British farce than anyone has managed since Richard Curtis.
If anything The Hippopotamus is more reminiscent of Bruce Robinson than anything as measured, sobering or safe as Curtis ever made. Ted Wallace feels more like a Withnail without the tragic sense of impending futility which comes with that character. His dislike, distrust, disregard and alienation of others steams from a creative drought for which Wallace holds all accountable. That Allam is able to retain audience sympathies has much to do with the hang dog demeanour, aristocratic buffoonery and childish treatment of others. His pretention, political incorrectness and protestations of persecution all come across as amusingly out of touch, rather than purposely spiteful or mean-spirited.
Others who gravitate into the orbit of Allam in full flow all ably hold the screen, but feel less fleshed out, more constrained by stereotype and increasing caricatures in comparison. Matthew Modine’s Michael Logan may be Lord of Swafford, but his impact here is minimal. Emily Berrington fares far better even though most of her scenes happen over an iPad. Only Curtis alumni Tim McInnerny is able to stave off Allam in his domination of proceedings, with an overt performance which deviates into pathos come the close.
In many ways The Hippopotamus is old-fashioned in its approach relying on strong character, solid plotting and supporting roles with substance if not subtlety. Voice over used extensively can often detract from proceedings, but here it adds a supremely bitchy internal monologue which provides some of the best punch lines. Often delivered with the dry self-awareness few can do without coming across as sinister or arrogant.
Writers Blanche McIntyre and Tom Hodgson have fashioned something uniquely British here from a source considered more British than most. Stephen Fry remains one of our foremost contributors to popular culture and creatively capable in almost every arena. Their adaptation of his novel has distilled that wry sense of humour, mocking self-deprecation and intellectual certainty into something tangible. Making The Hippopotamus nothing short of a major victory both as entertainment and also something much more meaningful.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★