The Hippopotamus


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Hippopotamus
"Allam makes no secret of the fact that, as Ted, he's essentially playing Fry himself, capturing every little vocal tick and expressive nuance."

Jane (Emily Berrington) didn't expect to be sitting there talking to her mother's old flame Ted (Roger Allam). She has, or had, leukaemia. That's not a very useful term, and it's an unlikely one for a patient to use in the circumstances - there are more than a dozen types and they behave quite differently - but the pertinent thing is that her doctor told her she had little time left, and there she is, looking and feeling healthy. This, she believes, must be due to a miraculous healing gift possessed by Ted's godson David (Tommy Knight). So she wants Ted to investigate. Is there something supernatural about the teenager from stately Swafford Hall that could change her fate and that of countless others?

Ted might, at first, seem an unlikely person to ask. He's not a private eye or an investigative journalist; he's a long-lapsed poet who has recently been sacked from his job as an arts critic after getting thrown out of a theatre for boorish behaviour. But he's easily accepted into the boy's household and he has something that others there don't possess - a healthy cynicism about the very possibility of miracles. He also, despite his immediate loathing of the boy's optimism and poetic ambitions, manages to form an immediate rapport with him, perhaps because he still has a lot of growing up to do himself. The pair get into the sort of scrapes you'd expect from characters created by Stephen Fry (in his book of the same name) but things become really awkward when Ted uncovers the extent of the boy's self-mythologisation, which threatens to leave everyone in a rather sticky situation.

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A stalwart supporting actor who rarely gets the chance to take centre stage like this, Allam makes no secret of the fact that, as Ted, he's essentially playing Fry himself, capturing every little vocal tick and expressive nuance. Indulgent as this is, the film will delight fans of the comedian and author but is likely to prove tremendously irritating to others. We are, at least, spared the mummery that Fry himself brought to the likes of Gosford Park. Furthermore, though it's slight, Ted does get something of a character arc during the film, gradually gaining a modicum of self-awareness. This is important in giving viewers some hope for his future and also offers pertinent comment on fashionable cynicism. Even if Ted is correct in his suspicions that the miracles at Swafford Hall are not real, does that make it okay for him to say so, smugly and indelicately, in front of Jane's worried mother?

As might have been expected, this film has upset some members of faith communities who take issue with any questioning of the notion of spiritual gifts, so it's worth noting that it's very much focused on the case at hand and doesn't make any lofty pronouncements on the wider issue. Though the acting is heavily stylised throughout and the development of the supporting characters takes second place to comedy, we are intermittently reminded that more than ego is at stake. The prime appeal of the film, however, is Ted's freewheeling egotism and application of his poetical skills to the art of the insult. He doesn't quite attain the heights that Malcolm Tucker does, nor is he challenged much by a succession of easy targets, but his misanthropic ramblings will prove pleasing to many. Ultimately, this is a film in which words matter more than having something to say.

Reviewed on: 28 Jun 2017
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The Hippopotamus packshot
A theatre critic is offered a princely sum to travel to a stately home to investigate a series of unexplained ‘miracles’.

Director: John Jencks

Writer: Stephen Fry, Robin Hill, Tom Hodgson, Blanche McIntyre

Starring: Roger Allam, Matthew Modine, Fiona Shaw

Year: 2017

Runtime: 89 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


EastEnd 2017

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