Directed by John Jencks
Written by Stephen Fry
Starring Roger Allam, Matthew Modine, Fiona Shaw, Emily Berrington, Tim McInnerny, Geraldine Somerville, Tommy Knight
Film Review by Taryll Baker
Adapted from Stephen Fry’s novel of the same name, John Jencks’ The Hippopotamus is a smart and intelligently written picture that tells the story of a drunken, down-on-his-luck poet (Roger Allam) who is enlisted to investigate a series of mystery miracle healings at a country Manor, Swafford Hall.
As the screen opens we are instantly greeted by the huffy Ted Wallace. Presented with a delightfully promising diegesis, Stephen Fry’s first screen adaption quickly becomes mysteriously investing. With Roger Allam - playing a disgruntled poet-turned-theatrical critic who presents a likeable, convivial charm that occasionally bursts through his bitterly and waspish personality - we are unexpectedly drawn into the situation by virtue of his realistically poignant performance.
The supporting cast are as suitably radiant to the screenplay as Allam. Michael & Anne Logan (Matthew Modine & Fiona Shaw) providing a true sense of authenticity in their roles, but it’s the terrific absurdity that Oliver Mills (Tim McInnerny) presents that steals the show in many of his lightly amusing scenes. Much of the film revolves around David (Tommy Knight) and his curious “healing powers” that provoke excitement in the residents of Swafford Hall. Knight’s fun execution is the groundwork for many of the cast, creating an opportunity for well-timed comedic exuberance.
Cinematographer Angus Hudson captures the film with a beautiful and keen eye for the surrounding environment, which only adds to the flourishing story. The locations have been marvelously hand-picked by the location management and contribute greatly to the performances on-screen. Everything in the production aspect of this film feels tightly wrapped, especially the editing. It’s a smooth and eye-pleasing experience that never once jolts or creases the screen, thanks to Robin Hill and John Richards.
During its second act, The Hippopotamus does become less interesting for a few beats, but eventually we are brought back to the fine storytelling that felt so inviting in the first moments. Director John Jencks plays with Stephen Fry’s existing material very well, and though at times it feels stilted, the fire is rekindled by the third act.
Samuel Karl Bohn provides a sublime, fantastically fitting original score that not only sounds lush, but is entirely functional. His classical writing and compositional skills are clearly visible through his music, which is a pleasant treat for composers like myself.
Although the screenplay sinks toward the second act, John Jencks, Roger Allam and cast put The Hippopotamus back on its feet for a mighty and satisfying resolution.