Back in the heady days of the 1990s, Stephen Fry tossed quality words into the world and made the Wodehouse-literate chuckle by filling the much-lacking country house-sex-and-gags gap with The Hippopotamus. Ultimately a touching tale, it told the story of Ted, a once-successful poet, sacked in a moment of soured middle-age, exhausted weight and alcohol abuse, and hectoring of actors. He was reduced to the state of a sacked critic of the arts.
Well, pfft, says old Jack. Such a trade is filled with noble souls, lacing their criticism with the shiny ribbons of insight. But let us assume a creature such as Ted could exist. For a bit.
They made a film of Fry’s story. This one. It is a simplified adaptation straining to be fun whilst not making the most of a terrific central performance and pith nicked from the book. So to The Hippopotamus (2017).
On the pandemic-endurance side, Ted is played by Roger Allam.
Yeah – that Roger Allam: of Morse’s youth and Cumberbatch’s hell in Cabin Pressure.
The man is terrific. Really. The bloated, bitter, swirlingly cutting Ted springs unchallenged from a man roaring through the right role. Really. It’s a match so perfect it suffocates every trite bit of business he’s asked to dance through. And everyone around him. Except possibly the wadges of narration he has to spout.
Sacked and desperate Ted turns to his god-daughter – a cancer victim with money played by plot-devisingly chirpy Emily Berrington – who wants him to hunt down miracles in a country house. And not any old house, rather one filled with broken friendships, broken loves and a god-son Ted has allowed to reach 16 with barely a supportive word. Ted’s a bit of a tossser, really, but you feel for him.
And the writers know it. Fry, none too subtly, channels T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The broad-backed hippopotamus…is merely flesh and blood” through Ted as he investigates the apparently godlike powers of said godson, David. Rumour has it the lad can perform miracles, and save asthma, angina or cancer victims with the touch of his hands or – a 16 year old’s dream – the blast of his semen.
By the film’s end, old Jack here felt a tad queasy. There’s fellatio that goes badly (a startled young lady seeking comeliness gets bitey), an alarming flashback with a sick horse, and the lad dispensing his spermy gifts amongst the anginas and cancered. In a demonstration of liberalism and modernity, angina man is swarthy and camp, and cancer woman is stunning. Old Jack felt a tad trapped by these plot horrors.
The thing isn’t helped by Ted’s brief: find miracles. Well, there they are.
But this is a thing that echoes old film formulae. So Ted investigates, giving off British Character Actor in waves of bath-time solipsism, drunken clambering up hills, and sour exchanges with ex friends and ex lovers. It all sits strangely, to be honest, with the country house mystery not a mystery and the push-me-pull-you of Wodehouse and Agatha Christie clashing foppishly.
I know. A bit of a let down, really. The thing is certainly clever if emotionless, but the great chunks of narration tell you the smarts and all the jokes (there’s a Narnia cracker) come from the book, and you’re watching a diluted, waifery imitation of something far far better.
Don’t get me wrong, the cast are fine. Matthew Modine is Ted’s oddly interestingly steely and fey ex friend, Fiona Shaw gives wiry believer with love, and Tommy Knight is deft and dazed as the properly lucky teenage boy. But – oh – they’re blotted out by the bright hippopotamus filling the sky…
Roger Allam is – again – perfect. Sallow, depressed, drunk and wrecked by the fading abilities of middle-age, he gets us very right. There’s everything to enjoy in his oldster; or at least one a decade off decrepitude. His timing will have you loving the man, but the film comes nowhere near what he deserves.
Old Jack is torn. If you love Allam and bitchy narrations, the film will entertain you with highs of pith and potency. If you don’t, it’ll annoy the flying crap out of you.
Wait ’til the Spring and give it a go on a sunny day.