Stephen Fry’s debut novel, The Hippopotamus, has gained a lot of fans since its debut in 1994. It would seem like a good candidate for a film version. Sadly though, what we’ve got is rather limp.
Ted Wallace (Roger Allam) is a famous poet who hasn’t written anything for years, and whose very vocal cynicism causes him to lose his main means of support – as a theatre critic. In order to make money he agrees to go to the grand house of his former friend, Michael Logan (Matthew Modine), under the guise of visiting his godson, David (Tommy Knight).
Really though he’s been hired to investigate mysterious rumours of miracles being performed at Swofford Hall, and work out whether there are really magical things happening there. He may also be able to discover why the other guests have dropped in, including a mother and her not particularly beautiful daughter, and the flamboyantly gay Oliver (Tim McInnery)
Having Roger Allam in the lead role is both a blessing and a curse. He’s one of Britain’s best actors, and if his Ted Wallace was a side character he would have been brilliant in the role. However, he’s a little too convincing as the often unpleasant, nihilistic poet, as while Fry’s mellifluously vitriolic prose spews forth from Allam beautifully in both dialogue and voiceover, he plays it so straight that it’s difficult to empathise with him or care too much about his only half-explained miracle mission. They just make him bumble and fall over a lot, in lieu of making us see why his point of view is either valid or misguided.
Likewise, in the novel, the plot is intriguing, building the mystery about what may be happening at the Hall. Here though the is almost an afterthought, with only mild intrigue for much of the movie, before it suddenly throws it all at the screen in a scene played out like Miss Marple announcing who the murderer really is.
Ultimately, the movie is a trifle – passable but never getting its teeth around the material. It’s a mystery that’s not very mysterious, a comedy that’s not that funny, a farce that keeps forgetting to be farcical, and a character study that plays things in strokes that are too broad.
It’s a shame, as it could have been a lot of fun, and the denouement could have been great if more care had been given to what ran up to it. Instead it’s just a lot of vaguely amusing happenings that don’t add up to an awful lot.
Overall Verdict: Fans of Stephen Fry’s novel are likely to feel that what could have been an entertaining and very funny comedy of manners, is instead something that doesn’t add up to an awful lot.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac