Like all children of a certain age, when I was seven I was a big fan of Roald Dahl’s books and had read several of them at school. Therefore I was excited when, in 1990, Esio Trot was released; a book that was to be the last published work of Dahl before his death. Fast forward twenty or so years and I found myself in a London hotel watching Richard Curtis’ adaptation of the same book.
For such a thin book, I was surprised that Curtis and co-writer Paul Mayhew-Archer had been able to turn it into a ninety minute film. However Curtis, who had read the book to his children, felt that there was quite a sweet love story at the centre of it. For somebody who is considered to be the king of romantic comedies; a tale about a man trying to woo his downstairs neighbour would appear to be quite an attractive proposition. But I feel that the fact the two protagonists are in their twilight years and the fact that the plot mainly concerns tortoises may have provided a few problems for Curtis to truly realise his vision.
After watching Esio Trot I went back to look at my copy of the book and found that Curtis had only kept the bare bones of Roald Dahl’s story. For those of you who’ve never read the story it focuses on the lonely Mr Hoppy (here played by Dustin Hoffman) who loves to garden but loves his upstairs neighbour a lot more. The neighbour in question is Mrs Silver (Judi Dench); a colourful character who is much more exuberant than Hoppy and has room for only one love in her life; her tortoise Alfie. Complications ensue when Hoppy feels he can make Mrs Silver’s live better by helping Alfie to grow by giving her poem to recite. But in fact Hoppy’s scheme is to replace Alfie with a number of larger tortoises in order to impress the woman he loves.
Curtis and Mayhew-Archer have fleshed the story out slightly by including several other elements including a love rival for Hoppy in the form of fellow neighbour Mr Pringle (Richard Cordery). The whole piece is given a lively feel thanks to James Corden who appears on screen as the narrator telling us the story of Mr Hoppy as he goes about his day. The appearance of a narrator allows the story to flow a little better and I personally enjoyed how Corden’s character was incorporated into the plot as it progressed. Director Dearbhla Walsh also keeps the pace ticking along nicely as no scene really drags on too long.
Walsh’s direction also allows Dahl’s words to come alive on screen with both Mr Hoppy and Mrs Silver’s flats being lovingly recreated. Many of us who remember the book will recall Quentin Blake’s fantastic illustrations and I found that Walsh tried to bring those to life as best she could. From Hoppy’s floral veranda to Mrs Silver’s fantastic costumes; Esio Trot is a visual treat and it certainly feels like a Roald Dahl adaptation. This adaptation has also been given a memorable soundtrack thanks to the music of Louis Armstrong; an artist that Curtis talked about listening to in his youth. Armstrong’s music suits the love story of Mr Hoppy and Mrs Silver perfectly and provides an excellent accompaniment to their final dance.
With both Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman on board, one thing Esio Trot was never going to be was poorly acted. After seeing him in several supporting roles in recent films, it was great to see Hoffman take the lead as the likeable Mr Hoppy. The socially awkward nature of the character meant that Hoffman had to channel some of his performance from The Graduate and I personally loved the scene in which he was watching Mrs Silver dance. Dench’s liveliness was the perfect complement to Hoffman’s dourer persona and together they had excellent chemistry. This is surprising as they hardly appear in the same room together and both complained about stiff necks due to the fact that the majority of the time they were bending up or down. Esio Trot wouldn’t work if you weren’t willing Mr Hoppy to successfully woo Mrs Silver but, thanks to both Hoffman and Dench, you’re constantly wanting the central couple to get together.
Esio Trot could’ve easily been a kid’s only festive film but I feel that Curtis’ adaptation has made the story a lot more universal. Whilst the youngsters will enjoy the multiple tortoises on screen, I think the parents and grandparents will appreciate the incredibly sweet love story at the centre of the film. At the screening Curtis says that of all the couples he’s written about he felt that Mr Hoppy and Mrs Silver are most likely to stay together and, after watching the film multiple times, I agree with him whole-heartedly.
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