'The Hippopotamus': Seattle International Film Festival movie review
The acerbic adaptation "The Hippopotamus" (screens during the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival starting May 30) is a wickedly funny comedy-mystery anchored by a great lead performance surpassed only by its sharp script.
In short: Disgraced poet and drunken theater critic Ted Wallace (Roger Allam, "The Thick of It") travels to a country manor to investigate a series of unexplained miracles. Matthew Modine, Fiona Shaw and Emily Berrington also star.
Pompous and cutting, Wallace is the perfect guide for this investigation into the improbable. Easily annoyed by the silly people surrounding him, Wallace is a bitter and cantankerous man who suffers no fools. Quick to sneer and offer a snide remark, he is a cynic sent on a search for a miracle. Allam's performance is a rich tapestry of contradictions - Wallace voices his own sense of underappreciated legacy, yet he carries himself with a sense of self-defeat. He carries contempt for any art less than poetic brilliance but he is utterly unable to create or write any poetry himself.
The screenplay, adapted from Stephen Fry's novel, accomplishes a rare feat of cinema: truly great voice over. Wallace's spoken dialogue is sharply honed, weaponized barbs - but his internal monologue is beautifully written, lyrical insight into his open-eyed, unrepentant thoughts. His private thoughts give this brilliant comedy a rich texture.
In addition to the biting comedic elements, "The Hippopotamus" also has elements of a mystery. Wallace has no time for such fantastical ideas as miraculous healing, but the story leaves just enough room for the miracles to either be a true wonder or utter nonsense. This ambiguity keeps the film engaging - especially as Wallace himself becomes uncertain of the truth.
"The Hippopotamus" culminates in an absolutely bonkers third act. While the audience is distracted by the wit of its audacious protagonist, the film drops little hints. All these little clues are pulled together in what can only be called a shocking and absurd conclusion - but one that, despite its insanity, makes some warped sense (in the logic of this film).
This film excels when its focus is squarely on Wallace and his investigation - anytime the film wanders, it instantly becomes less interesting. There are simply too many characters running on and off screen to genuinely care about any of the supporting cast. They are all defined by some deep personal history they share with Wallace, which the film glosses over too quickly and explores to no substantial depth. The film treats pretty much everyone aside from Wallace as just some basic eccentricity - reducing them to just being flamboyant, uptight or helplessly nerdy.
Final verdict: Thoroughly enjoyable, "The Hippopotamus" is a clever and sharply-written comedy that perfectly preserves Stephen Fry's familiar voice. It does fall in the trap many adaptations suffer - its complex relationship between characters is likely explored to great satisfaction in the novel, but only hinted at in the film.
"The Hippopotamus" screens at SIFF 2017. This British comedy is unrated and has a running time of 89 minutes.