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Home Entertainment review: The Hippopotamus

Director: John Jencks

Starring: Roger Allam, Matthew Modine, Fiona Shaw, Tommy Knight, Tim McInnerny, Russell Tovey, Emily Berrington

Stephen Fry is a national treasure in our part of the world and to a certain extent across the globe. What’s less well-known is his output as a novelist, but director John Jencks hopes to redress that with an adaptation of the author’s 1994 comedy.

Roger Allam stars as Ted, a washed-up poet who’d rather spend his time wallowing in a bath off his face on whiskey than interacting with the world around him. He is the hippo of the title, roaming around with an ungainly wit. This behaviour threatens to ruin him once and for all after he gets verbal at the theatre in the process of writing a review for a pretentious show. Dumped by his employers, he is unexpectedly picked up by Jane (Emily Berrington), a terminally ill young woman who has a strange assignment for Ted. She wants him to visit Swafford Hall, a country pile said to hold the secret to miracle cures. There resides American interloper Lord Logan (Matthew Modine), who is a former ally of Margaret Thatcher and an old friend of Ted’s.

References to Thatcher are appropriate because this film kind of forgets the last quarter of a century ever happened. “Time for a second stanza of your mother’s cream cake!” is a typical line. The Hippopotamus remains largely and defiantly old-fashioned, to the extent that when a tablet appears it practically jars. This isn’t a major criticism but I get the impression the story’s supposed to bite. Ted’s elaborate barbs aside it’s about as cutting as a rusty cheese slice, though as you’d expect Fry’s dialogue (brought to the screen by Blanche McIntyre and Tom Hodgson) contains some choice witticisms. I enjoyed someone being described as “bat infested”. I was less sure about Allam feeling like “twelve types of dick”.

There are various strands to the plot, the progress of Ted’s eccentric and sex-obsessed godson David (Tommy Knight) for example, so things tick along reasonably well without succumbing to the sluggish pace of its central character. I’m a fan of Allam’s but have only ever seen him in supporting roles. On this evidence I’d say he’s better in that capacity than as a meaty lead. However in fairness Ted is intended as a soporific presence. The actor’s sardonic yet strangely calming tones certainly make the proceedings more watchable.

Matthew Modine doesn’t look comfortable as the formidable Lord of the Manor, which is a shame as I like him enormously also. He’s simply too sensitive-looking for the part. Aside from the heavyweight presence of Fiona Shaw playing his wife Anne, the rest of the cast is composed of familiar faces from the small screen (Tim McInnerny, Fry’s old Blackadder sparring partner, being a standout) giving decent performances. Jencks creates some stilted moments but on the whole delivers a serviceable job. Samuel Karl Bohn’s score is noticeable in its contrast to the unremarkable action it accompanies.

I was left with the feeling this story didn’t really suit a live action feature and would be more at home as a radio play, where its word-driven scenario could exert more of a hold. As it stands, the film is a workmanlike rendering of a subject which was perhaps intended to be more sophisticated and satirical than it eventually turned out.

The Hippopotamus is available on DVD & Blu-ray and Digital Download from 3 July.

Steve is a journalist and comedian who enjoys American movies of the 70s, Amicus horror compendiums, Doctor Who, Twin Peaks, Naomi Watts and sitting down. His short fiction has been published as part of the Iris Wildthyme range from Obverse Books.


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