Are there such things as miracles? For the slightly wet-behind-the-ears Logan family, who seem positively embalmed in wealth and luxury, there certainly is. Cynical, down-on-his luck theatre critic and former playwright Ted Wallace (Roger Allam), on the other hand, has little time for such claptrap.
The Hippopotamus, directed by John Jencks, is adapted from the 1994 novel by Stephen Fry, and the author’s dry, PG Wodehouse-esque wit is all over this off-the-wall, cheerfully foul-mouthed movie. If it has the air of an old-fashioned Merchant Ivory production – posh people, rolling hills, horses, that kind of thing – then it’s at least served up with a pleasing side order of acidic humour.
It all begins when Ted, who’s never encountered a bottle of whisky he doesn’t like, loses his job at a London newspaper after one pompous outburst too many. A distraction from weeks of miserable drunkenness arrives when Ted’s god-daughter, Jane (Emily Berrington, last seen in Channel 4‘s Humans) dispatches him to a posh country mansion to investigate a miracle. The Logan family, Jane believes, have a Christ-like healer in their midst: 15-year-old, poetry-spouting milquetoast David (Tommy Knight).
Ted, who’s visibly horrified at David’s florid attempts at verse (one of his latest efforts is about pleasuring himself in the woods), is having none of it: he’s far too jaded and world-weary to believe David’s claims, even when the family horse is seemingly rescued from oblivion by the lad’s supernatural powers.
This, at least, is the jumping-off point for a brisk, diverting comedy drama which is British to a fault. The eccentric cast of supporting characters are played by some familiar faces from UK film and TV: Russell Tovey as the newspaper man who gives Ted his marching orders, Tim McInnerny as a rather flamboyant friend of the Logan family, and Fiona Shaw as David’s mother. All of them, including Matthew Modine as the family’s stern patriarch, give such broad performances that The Hippopotamus initially feels like a cleanly-mounted stage production – one where all the players are projecting their voices to a half-deaf person at the back of the theatre.
With his boorish manner and rambling narration (a hang-over from the book’s epistolary style), Ted doesn’t initially feel like the best guide into the film’s world of brocaded luxury, either. Yet gradually, something uncanny happened: just as Ted’s sozzled cynicism gives way to curiosity regarding the Logan family mystery, so The Hippopotamus began to win us over. Ted’s ineptitude as a detective becomes curiously endearing, and Roger Allam gives his character a hint of loneliness and melancholy that sits just beneath all his caustic observations. Oh, and the pay-off to the whole mystery – which we won’t spoil, obviously – is a corker.
Simply yet competently directed, The Hippopotamus doesn’t quite have the grungy honesty and quotability of, say, Withnail & I – a true classic of the ‘drunken Brit comedy’ genre – but it does have enough affectionately-crafted sauciness to make it worth the price of admission. As Stephen Fry knows, a well thought out insult can have be a form of poetry in the right hands.
The Hippopotamus is out now in UK cinemas.