DVD Review– The Hippopotamus
The Hippopotamus is a not a traditional mystery. There is no murder or theft. The narrative centers on Ted Wallace, a hard-drinking poet (Roger Allam) whose career has stalled. When his inappropriate behavior leads to his dismissal from his drama criticism job, his goddaughter hires him to investigate a series of potentially miraculous cures, her own recovery from leukemia being one of them. This requires Wallace to visit the country estate of a former friend, and he soon discovers that his teenaged godson believes that he has the power to heal the sick. The skeptical Wallace is having none of it, and he starts an inquiry to prove that the dramatic healings have a more prosaic explanation.
Based on the novel by Stephen Fry, The Hippopotamus has some truly inspired lines and scenes, but the resulting movie is uneven, both in terms of tone and general quality. The Hippopotamus veers back and forth between the genres of genteel comedy of manners and bawdy sex romp. The film never seems to comprehend how tawdry some of the material is, with a couple of instances of statutory rape and bestiality being glossed over, and an explicit depiction of oral sex leaves an aura of nastiness over the whole proceedings that is not soon dissipated.
The movie is beautifully shot, but the charm of the surroundings doesn’t seem to rub off on the characters. This is not the fault of the talented actors, many of whom come across as people who are desperately seeking a miracle to add some needed brightness to their lives, with the big exception of Wallace. One rather gets the impression that if Wallace were to see a winged angel flying through the air, he would grab the nearest blunderbuss and try to bring the heavenly creature down out of fear that the sight of the angel would awaken the faith of others. We’re often told what a great poet Wallace was in his prime, but Wallace’s constant reliance on the same old profanities dampens our belief that he possesses an expert command of the English language, and his clumsy—often brutal—handling of other people’s feelings calls into question just how keen a student of human nature he is.
The film’s best scene is right at the beginning, with Wallace causing a ruckus at a subpar production of the play, with one confused woman wondering if all of his heckling is part of the show. It’s not, but in some ways it’s the brightest and most boisterous moment of the film: here we see Wallace expressing his honest opinion rather than hiding behind a cultivated persona of sneering and recalcitrant disbelief at all things supernatural. Had the movie focused on a picaresque romp of Wallace’s through the pretensions of the theater world, it could have been a delight. As it is, the bitterness destroys the story’s pleasures, and the frequent crudeness distracts from the numerous witty lines.
Bits of the satiric tale are reminiscent of a classic Evelyn Waugh novel, but while Waugh’s works centered on people discovering the souls they often didn’t know they had, The Hippopotamus is about a man trying to smother his soul and those of other people with liquor and cynicism.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment