Sunday, 19 August 2018

THE LEIGH SPENCE MOMENT: THE HIPPOPOTAMUS

80. “You need to keep your eyes open, and see what needs to be seen.”



19/08/2018





More than “The Thick of It,” “Endeavour” and “Les Miserables,” I know Roger Allam’s voice from the radio sitcom “Cabin Pressure,” where his claret-like tones, as pilot Douglas Richardson, compete admirably alongside Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephanie Cole and John Finnemore. So, to have a film, based on a novel by Stephen Fry, evocative of P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh, that aims to give you as much of Roger Allam’s voice as possible, I should be screaming from the rooftops about the greatest example of concentrated Englishness since Robinson’s Barley Water.

However, with how “The Hippopotamus” appeared to bypass my local cinemas to home video and streaming services, I entered the film, having come across it a good couple of years after hearing it was going to be made, wondering if I was expecting it to be better than it could turn out to be – it must have dropped off my radar for some reason. As it turned out, rather than keeping my eyes open, my watching this film became more a case of “How is a person supposed to investigate nothing in particular?”


The title “The Hippopotamus” comes from T.S. Eliot’s poem of the same name, and Allam’s character, Ted Wallace, once a hell-raising critic, is often shown lounging, lightly sozzled, in a bath – he is a theatre critic whose poetic voice has diminished. The film appears to get most of this out of the way in about ten minutes flat, with Wallace heckling a play and getting fired by his editor, before he travels to the country house where the film’s story takes place. Wallace is sent there by his goddaughter, who he has not seen in years, and he is only asked to observe, and report back.

It might just be my not being a fan of mystery plots, but when you are watching someone who is working out what he is supposed to be investigating, you do start feeling a little unsatisfied. I do prefer Hitchcock-style suspense plots, but that relies on the audience being given information upfront. Until then, you are left with multiple larger-than-life characters, including an overlay camp playwright, a French socialite, and a godson that believes he possesses magical healing powers – this is believed and supported by most of the family, and is also why everyone is there, but this is found to be misplaced, coincidental, and more than a bit perverted, which comes too late for the goddaughter who thought her miracle cure from leukaemia could help her godfather's life.

I have not read the original novel of “The Hippopotamus,” although I feel I may get more out of it. Stephen Fry wrote it as an epistolary novel, made up of letters from Wallace to his goddaughter, and various poems he wrote before the inspiration ran out – the real miracle of the film is that the inspiration comes back. To have the letters replaced by Skype calls, including the Skype ring tone, feels like an expediency, and to have little evidence of the poetry is a shame. The stream of consciousness from Roger Allam’s voice is what compensates for the lack of letters, but while it is good to hear that voice provided by the square yard, it could be supplanted by Stephen Fry reading the audiobook instead. It just doesn’t feel like there is much to this film, but it makes for an attractive diversion.

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