Esio Trot - TV Review

'Hoffman is nothing short of flawless as the introverted, lovelorn Mr. Hoppy, his every movement and inflection putting across the undying love his character feels but cannot express for Dench's Mrs. Silver'.

Appearing front and centre of BBC One's prime time scheduling on New Year's Day, Esio Trot initially offers something of a conundrum as to which direction it might go in. On the one hand, this is the latest in the now considerably long line of Roald Dahl feature adaptations (although the first since 1989's The BFG to be made directly for television), and whilst these have varied in both critical and popular reception over the years, we are arguably yet to see a truly bad film based on a Dahl text. On the other, the adaptation comes from Richard Curtis, writer and director of some of the most unbearably saccharine (and simultaneously the most popular) cinema of the past twenty years; alongside Paul Mayhew-Archer, Curtis' writing partner for TV sitcoms such as The Vicar Of Dibley.

There is evidence of both Dahl's and Curtis' fingerprints here from the very start, perhaps through necessity more than anything else. Dahl's original story is only around eighty pages in length and is a relatively simple tale, so it's arguably not surprising that Curtis and Mayhew-Archer add some embellishments of their own. The Dahl elements at the film's core thankfully never jar with the new additions, but at the same time they regularly outshine anything placed around them. The two main characters from the book - Mr. Hoppy (Dustin Hoffman) and Mrs. Silver (Judi Dench) - are considerably more finely crafted and authentic than Curtis and Mayhew-Archer's more hackneyed inventions, such as insufferable self-obsessed neighbour Mr. Pringle (Richard Cordery), or the eccentric pet shop owner (Jimmy Akingbola) Mr. Hoppy interacts with at a few points.

Thankfully, however, Curtis manages to keep his "Curtis-ness" under control for most of the film (most likely because he's not also in the director's chair), only unnecessarily throwing James Corden's narrator at us too many times during the first half an hour before calming down and wisely allowing him to fade into the background where narrators are usually found. Esio Trot is undoubtedly at its best when Curtis, Mayhew-Archer and director Dearbhla Walsh simply allow the Dahl elements to take centre stage, the author's inventive charm shining through regularly.

Arguably the main issue the film fails to resolve is its length - whoever thought an eighty page book needed a ninety minute film adaptation needs a serious talking to - with several sequences throughout feeling like somewhat unnecessary additions to what is in essence a straightforward romantic yarn. The finale contains the greatest deviances from Dahl's source that lovers of the original book may struggle to accept, but that work very well nonetheless.

Esio Trot therefore proves itself to be perfectly good, family-friendly viewing, endearingly romantic but free from the sugar-soaked overkill of Curtis' previous work. But what consistently raises this to the level of something considerably better and more distinctive than that are the two world class actors at its centre. Dench is an infectious delight, a world away from the calculating, battle-hardened M of the Bond films and clearly having a huge amount of fun throughout. Hoffman is nothing short of flawless as the introverted, lovelorn Mr. Hoppy, his every movement and inflection putting across the undying love his character feels but cannot express for Dench's Mrs. Silver.

The chemistry between Hoffman and Dench is just as magical, as is their ability to deliver both heart-warming and heart-wrenching dialogue when sharing the screen only with tortoises. Without the skills of its considerably talented central pair, Esio Trot would likely be an enjoyable but somewhat vanilla Dahl adaptation. As it is, however, the lead performances undeniably make this a much more memorable and satisfying experience.

Esio Trot is available in the UK on BBC iPlayer from now until 8.00pm on 31st January 2015.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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