This review contains spoilers.
Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot is the story of burgeoning love between two pensioners – the shy and quiet Mr Hoppy (Dustin Hoffman) and the outgoing-but-dim Mrs Silver (Judi Dench). Mr Hoppy is far too reserved to express his feelings for Mrs Silver, who appears to only have eyes for her tortoise, Alfie. But when Hoppy hears the object of his affections expressing dismay at Alfie’s lack of growth, he concocts a cunning plan to make her happy and win her heart…
Much criticism has been levelled at Peter Jackson over his decision to turn The Hobbit into three movies, with the final film running at around two minutes per page of the book. However, the book on which the 90-minute Esio Trot is based contains just 45 pages of text – only one of which doesn’t contain any of Quentin Blake’s marvellous illustrations. Consequently, it would probably be fairer to call the film Richard Curtis’s Esio Trot, such is the amount of material that’s been added for this adaptation.
It’s a bold move to try and add to Dahl’s canon, and unfortunately several of the additions to the film only serve to detract from the main story. The biggest of these is the new character of Mr Pringle (Richard Cordery), who is brought in as an antagonist and possible love rival for Mr Hoppy. The character is everything Hoppy isn’t – large, loud and brash – and Cordery plays him with obvious relish, but the part feels perfunctory, a necessity to fill out the running time rather than a genuine creative decision.
Also sprinkled throughout the film is James Corden as the on-screen narrator. Corden is something of a divisive actor, and many of you reading this will have formed an opinion based on just seeing his name. Corden’s role in Esio Trot isn’t one of his more subtle performances, and though there’s nothing inherently wrong with the decision to have a narrator here (The original book was written in a somewhat conversational tone) the decision to build him in as an on-screen character in his own right proves on several occasions to be an unwelcome distraction, as you’re suddenly taken out of the love story to hear him wittering on about flowers or getting on the wrong bus to pick his daughter up from school.
Because really, Esio Trot is and always has been a film about two people and a tortoise. Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench are rarely less than watchable as actors, and here they are the absolute heart and soul of the piece. Whilst it may take a little time to buy into Hoffman as the shy and retiring Mr Hoppy, Judi Dench is immediately charming as Mrs Silver, and the two have a wonderful on-screen chemistry. Both actors are so likeable that you can’t help but be drawn into their world and want them to end up together, in spite of Mr Hoppy’s trickery.
And therein lies one of the few improvements writers Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer bring to Dahl’s story. Whether it was a conscious move by Dahl – who did, after all, relish in lending his stories a darker edge – or simply a case of not thinking the reality of the story through, the ending to the novel Esio Trot has always been somewhat problematic: having spent weeks deceiving Mrs Silver in order to gain her affections, he asks her to marry him, she says yes and they both live happily ever after, with Mrs Silver never any the wiser.
Though her response suggests she’s been in love with him all along as well, it’s a dubious resolution at best, and not one that would sit well with a modern audience. By having Mrs Silver learn of Mr Hoppy’s deception before agreeing to marry him, it no longer feels like the joke’s on her. It’s a shame she doesn’t find out about it herself, rather than relying on Mr Pringle to make the discovery, but it makes the ending to the story far more palatable – especially since it sees her reunited with Alfie, rather than having him sold off to a random girl as in the original.
The other faultless aspect of the production is the direction. Dearbhla Walsh does a wonderful job of creating the world in which Poppy and Silver live, using colour to great effect to create a world that feels slightly fairytale without being detached from reality. Camera angles are used to really sell the over-the-balcony nature of their relationship and add to the hyper-real nature of the film.
Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot’s biggest problem is its running length – the story could easily have been told in half the time (the unabridged audiobook lasts for just over 30 minutes), and even with the unnecessary padding it’s a slow-paced watch. However, it’s also an easy watch, and for the Sunday-afternoon feel of New Year’s Day as the holidays draw to a close, it may be just the tonic.
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