“THE HIPPOPOTAMUS”— A Disavowed Poet


A Disavowed Poet

Amos Lassen

 “The Hippopotamus” is a film about a disavowed poet and the film is filled classically British absurdity in a lush countryside setting and performed by a cast of excellent character actors led by Roger Allam as Ted Wallace. He travels to Swafford Hall, where Matthew Modine, an American, has taken up the manners and means of an English squire and where Wallace is tasked with investigating a series of ‘miracles.’

Now you must be warned that during the entire length of the film, there is voiceover that describes what is happening in Wallace’s head. He is referred to as a “poor, pompous, hippopotamus”.Ted Wallace is a drunk living off of his past literary fame. He is a poet who hasn’t written a poem since 1987. He works as a theatre critic for a newspaper culture section, he ends up seeing a terrible performance of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” and ends up fighting the director. Soon he is being called into his newspaper editor’s office and is fired.

Later, sitting in his no-longer-favorite pub because they’ve finally refused an extension to his line of credit, he meets a beautiful young woman who claims he’s her godfather. Jane (Emily Berrington) has a “project” for him. He is to visit Swafford Hall, home of her mother’s brother and his family, and investigate miracles that have supposedly been taking place there. Jane has leukemia and after spending what should have been her last few weeks at Swafford with her extended family she has apparently been cured.

Once at Swafford, he resumes his long-dropped friendships with Annie (Fiona Shaw), the aristocratic Lady of the house, and her American businessman husband Michael (Modine).  Their 16-year-old son David (Tommy Knight) and his more rational brother Simon are both there.

At Swafford everyone dresses for dinner although Ted spends much of his free time walking round the fields in a silk dressing gown. They have guests over including the flamboyant Oliver Mills (Tim McInnery), who thinks nothing of telling anal sex anecdotes at mealtimes. Valerie (Lyne Renee) is a very glamorous French woman with a rather plain teenage daughter.

Jane continually hassles him constantly from her home but Wallace is too drunk to be a natural sleuth. It turns out that David is Wallace’s godson and he is obsessed with sex and has no idea that it is inappropriate to talk about penises. Wallace is self-loathing and sarcastic, but he’s blunt without being mean and is actually very understanding of teenagers, and what is normal for them: their obsession with sex, and their desperation to understand the world without the world view to do so properly. David is certainly different but does he really have the ability to heal, or is everyone so desperate to believe that they hang on his every word. If you are trying to find a plot here, forget it— there isn’t one.

We hear a lot about sex, bestiality and underage sexual acts of a sexual nature but I am not sure why. The film is based on Stephen Fry’s novel of the same name and directed by John Jencks.

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