“Bleak yet funny, acidic yet humane, blistering yet accommodating.”
by Ken Bakely
Now that I have seen John Jencks’ The Hippopotamus, I am prepared to argue that Roger Allam may be one of the best deliverers of on-screen swearing this side of a Tarantino script. The film, working from a novel by the wonderful Stephen Fry, gives him the opportunity to spout off any number of four-letter words, or elaborate, multi-syllabic combinations. He has a voice-over which is droll and biting, taking an old fallback device and using it to an advantage: to give us an insight into the inner monologue of a cynical, bitter, and befuddled protagonist, who we find endearing.
His name is Ted Wallace, and thirty years ago, he was among Britain’s most promising young poets. But now, his star has fallen, and he finds himself a newspaper theatre critic. After a vicious outburst at a bad performance of Titus Andronicus, he then finds himself unemployed. (Critics, man. What do they know?) A caustic alcoholic, Ted still obliges a request to investigate strange happenings – miracles, some might call them – at Swafford, a sweeping country estate owned by an estranged friend (Matthew Modine). The man’s youngest son, David (Tommy Knight), an aspiring poet who idolizes Ted’s meager body of work, has become the subject of much excitement. He has seemingly performing a series of miracles in which he has healed the sick, beyond explanation.
Are they miracles? And if so, will they be enough for Ted to have a change of heart? Obviously I won’t say. The Hippopotamus is a movie which, yes, treats this central plot as a red herring, but in doing so, shows us the rich cavalcade of eccentric characters and scenarios it has up its sleeve. It’s a well-mannered slide into a pool of strange and profane delights. Swafford is opened up for a few days, and a handful of wealthy guests come to visit, obnoxious individuals who, as Ted puts, it “use ‘weekend’ as a verb.” There is a flamboyant stage director (Tim McInnerny), a stuffy French socialite (Lyne Renne), and her helicoptered daughter (Emma Curtis). While Jencks never develops these characters beyond types and exposition receptacles, the actors give their two-dimensional roles enough life that they feel like capable backgrounds to a more constant foreground.
When the movie digs into the weeds and plows through its runtime, it comes to a point where it’s as unabashed as its main characters. As a result, some will dislike the places it goes. I am reminded of one scene in particular, a conversation between Ted and a hospital doctor. It’s structured like that tired cliché of a dialogue in which one person is thinking of one thing and the other of something else, and draws its humor from that misunderstanding. The Hippopotamus’ take on the trope raises the stakes, and widens the chasm between its perception and reality so far, that you’re left howling in a semi-disgusted glee. Perhaps that’s a good way to describe the film’s overarching approach – familiar elements with a crackling edge.
Even for the most strident admirers of this style, it can prove a chore to sustain this kind of coolly noxious energy for an entire feature. It’s easy to imagine it working better as a miniseries – three half-hour episodes, where you can savor it in smaller doses and allow it to recoup is strengths in between. But The Hippopotamus comes to us as a movie, and Jencks is still effective at entertaining us. When the central questions of the story, and the reason for Ted’s trip in the first place, are answered in fast succession in the final 15 minutes, you’re not bothered by the fact that it’s still not that relevant, or that you figured out the tenants of the solution some time earlier. So if it can’t ride on a potboiler-parodying plot, we look to the performances. And with Allam’s booze-chugging, insult-throwing antihero, we’re hooked for the ride which follows. It’s bleak yet funny, acidic yet humane, blistering yet accommodating.