The Hippopotamus
dir John Jencks
prd Alexa Seligman, Jay Taylor
scr Tom Hodgson, Blanche McIntyre
with Roger Allam, Matthew Modine, Fiona Shaw, Tommy Knight, Dean Ridge, Tim McInnerny, Geraldine Somerville, Emily Berrington, Lyne Renee, Emma Curtis, John Standing, Russell Tovey
release UK 2.Jun.17
17/UK 1h26
The Hippopotamus
Family issues: Ridge and Allam

modine shaw mcinnerny
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
The Hippopotamus The witty verbosity of the incessant voiceover makes it clear that this British comedy is based on a Stephen Fry novel. And there's some intriguing stuff going on within the social pastiche about privilege and faith, told through the eyes of a curmudgeonly writer played by the reliable Roger Allam. But while it's enjoyable and sometimes hilarious, it feels paper thin.

Drunken ex-poet Ted (Allam) now works as an ill-tempered theatre critic, but loses his job when he crosses a line. Then his goddaughter Jane (Berrington) hires him to look into rumours that his 16-year-old godson David (Knight) has mystical healing powers. So Ted travels to the family mansion of David's parents Michael and Anne (Modine and Shaw), talking to David's older brother Simon (Ridge) as well as visiting local playwright Oliver (McInnerny) and Jane's mother Rebecca (Somerville), who happens to be Ted's ex. But can he be bothered to work out what's going on?

Jencks' loose direction makes it difficult to work out the twisted connections between people. Their endless bickering reveals a lot of history between them. And Ted's nonstop narration runs riot over every ecene, adding pithy comments without allowing the other characters to properly have their say. These are all vividly energetic people, each with his or her own perspective and reaction to what is happening, which makes every moment of the movie rather intriguing. But the script is too chaotic to bring things into focus.

Allam has fun as the ramshackle godfather trying to avoid whiskey so he can solve this mystery. He's a complete mess but sometimes manages to be likeable, and his interaction with the others is both barbed and fizzy. There are some fine moments for each actor, but none can ever steal focus from Allam. Most impressive is the young Knight, who holds his own as a teen boy who is obsessed with exactly the same thing as everyone else, but also like the others doesn't get it.

As the plot thickens, it squirms out of the grasp of the writers and director. The solution to the central conundrum is almost thrown away, revealed Agatha Christie-style with a sudden revelatory speech that the audience couldn't possibly see coming. This weakens the much more interesting themes that are running through the story, exploring how personal opinions and expectations can lead to actions that seem inexplicable but aren't. Which is of course a striking message in the day of fake news.

cert 15 themes, language, sexuality, violence 2.Mar.17

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