Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot
I watched my first 2015 film on New Years Day, and I didn’t even know that it was a 2015 film when I was watching it (and yeah, it counts). I thought I had read everything that Roald Dahl wrote when I was very young, but when this was flicked on and my girlfriend informed me it was an adaptation of Dahl’s work, I couldn’t for the life of me remember the book at all. Little bits of the story had started to permeate my memory by the end, but I think it is fair to say that I can approach Esio Trot without any real knowledge of the source material, which can be advantage when it comes to a more just appraisal of the adaptation on its own merits. So, maudlin love story or something more enchanting?
Retired Mr Hoppy (Dustin Hoffman) lives alone in a tower building, with only his extensive garden for company. He is hopelessly in love with his neighbour, Mrs Silver (Judi Dench), but lacks the courage or the words to make his feelings for her plain. But, when he comes to understand the depths of affection Mrs Silver has for her pet tortoise Alfie, Mr Hoppy hatches an extensive plot to win her love and live happily ever after.
What does work about Esio Trot? The general premise is easily viewed as heart-warming – an unlikely and unique love story played out against a backdrop of life’s sunset, with plenty of fairytale-style plot points thrown in, and a dash of romcom-level humour just to add a bit of modern spice to proceedings. Esio Trot is all about that central relationship between Hoppy and Silver, and I felt like it was handled appropriately for the story that it was. There’s a decent set-up with the introduction to the main two characters and their interactions with each other, and the evolving and increasingly ridiculous extent that Mr Hoppy is willing to go to try and win Mrs Silver’s heart helps the second act trip along nicely. That’s the hook and the charm of Esio Trot, in seeing how all of this unfolds, even amid the surprising amount of less light hearted material on show.
These two are lonely people, albeit with one of them hiding it much better than the other. As a treatise on the fate of the childless elderly, some might think it overly saccharine and not hard-hitting enough, but within the confines of a love story this is probably as far as director Dearbhla Walsh and writer Richard Curtis thought they could realistically go.
Things proceed at a leisurely pace, with the emphasis on Hoppy and his madcap scheme to replace Alfie with successively larger tortoises, the fairytale aspect both introduced and slightly inverted. At times that premise threatens to wear a bit too thin, and does sort of make a fool out of the Mrs Silver character, but enough humour at Mr Hoppy’s expense is worked into things so that the joke is really on both of them.
The leisurely pace does become very noticeable as we enter the third act though. Wikipedia tells me the book only has 62 pages, with would make for one and a half minutes of screen time per page if the adaptation was being as purist as possible. This wasn’t going to happen of course, and so things have to be changed or invented. But the pace is undeniably sluggish as we near the conclusion, things dragged out to a degree that made that 90 minute running time just a bit too long, a justification for the big names involved perhaps.
I’m given to understand that this was one Roald Dahl’s last work’s published before his death in 1990, and it’s easy to see that it’s a bit different from the books that made him famous. There’s plenty of child-like whimsy and wonder in the tale being told here, but there are other elements, somewhat sombre, that speak to a man who was approaching his own end, dealing with old age and all of the challenges that it brings. How much of that is the adaptation’s invention and how much of it is harvested from the source material is not clear to me, but it did permeate much of Esio Trot. Is it still a Roald Dahl story? Not a traditional one, but his kind of style is plain to see at certain moments.
Second hand sources tell me that there have been changes made, beyond just references to modern pop culture. This kind of thing is a cast-iron requirement for adaptation, but the trick is whether the changes improve or detract. The main two involve James Corden’s narrator and Richard Cordery’s other next door neighbour. For the first, he’s a sort of slightly elaborated upon guide for the audience which works well enough, though his direct inclusion in the story close to the end was blatantly unnecessary. The second is a bit worse: included merely to pad things out, present a more traditional romcom-style challenge for Mr Hoppy and lead to a sort of finale that might be a bit more palatable to a viewing audience but which would, in my opinion, rob the story of the sort of thing that Dahl was going for: his was a short, sweet, love story, without the sort of darkness and pain that the adaptation chooses to inject. Most of Esio Trot feels like escapism in romantic clothes, and “Mr Pringle” damages that feeling.
The darkness, be it looks at Mr Hoppy’s back problems, Mrs Silver’s reminisces on her deceased husband or the way that the story seems to be unfolding at the end, means that the actual happy ending (I suppose I should say “Spoilers”, but come on) doesn’t really fit just right, if that makes any sense. It’s overly-sentimentalised for sure (with the Love, Actually guy on the crew? No way!) but that’s not really a problem, it’s the kind of thing that Dahl went in for. That’s not my problem. It’s a bit of a rapid tone shift, a sudden reversal in fortune whose speed in execution and placement mere seconds from the ending make it all the more unsatisfying when you view things with a more critical eye. It’s as if they hit the 90 minute mark and wanted to show those credits as fast as possible. I think the story being told here could have been told in an hour, and while that would have tarnished its status as a film, it would have made it a better production. I see it too much nowadays, where filmmakers are driven to hit that hour and a half mark with a story that doesn’t fit neatly into that time frame.
The acting stakes are where Esio Trot really needs to do the right stuff, considering the giants they were able to get involved. Hoffman is fantastic thankfully: he steps into the role of a shy and retiring tower block OAP with such ease that it’s almost hard to imagine the same guy actually being one of the stars of Hollywood. With every awkward movement, sad glance and suddenly ecstatic declaration when it becomes clear that his plan is working out, Hoffman’s Hoppy is sure to resonate with any man who has ever been nervous around a girl they liked. Dench is not quite as good, though for me the problem was more with the stupidity of the character than the performance. Silver seems more like a sort of insert, less real and believable than Hoppy, and with much of the screen time devoted to Hoppy only, she is somewhat marginalised, sort of a slightly characterised prize for him to collect at the end.
Cordery, while playing a character who really drags things down in terms of tempo, is still decent enough as the third wheel who threatens to derail the Hoppy/Silver train, the exact kind of character to unconsciously bully Hoppy into stepping out of the race. And then there is James Cordon. Inexplicably popular as an actor in my opinion, I found Cordon’s involvement to be just about acceptable, even with the idealised look at London in his vaunt through the capital. But it really wasn’t necessary, his casting seeming to me to be more about having someone young, British and “in” on the cast list.
It a well done film visually. The direction and cinematography is nothing to really write home about, but Esio Trot deserves some serious kudos for the strength of its set-building, in regards the homes of Hoppy and Silver, the main locations for the vast majority of the film. Hoppy’s apartment is dark, musty, dreary but still contains just the right amount of fondly held memory and contentment to stop it from becoming a dank cave, and is contrasted really well with the explosion of colour that takes over on his balcony – which, being his closest point to Mrs Silver, is just the way it should be. Silver’s apartment is much more bouncy and colourful all round, a connection to her somewhat eccentric personality that plays well with the more simple Hoppy. The little details – the flowers, the model airplanes, the pyjamas, the deck chair – are what really count here, and go a very long way to making the world of Esio Trot somewhere to enjoy for an hour and a half.
The script is a delight too. I’m sure there has been plenty of patchwork done to the original words of Dahl, but that’s alight. The wordsmithing bubbles over with tenderness and sentimentality, but it doesn’t go over the top too much, until maybe the final scenes. The humour, after a bad start featuring some soulless jokes from Corden, is brief, dark and effective, not least Mr Hoppy’s constantly altered savings goal as he sinks more and more money into his plan to win Mrs Silver over. The key points and messages about love are expertly and fondly spoken here, and are bound to leave you just a little bit warmer inside.
My lack of knowledge on the book leaves me ill-prepared to offer a firm judgement on Esio Trot as an adaptation, but I can give a firm judgement on the merits of the film on its own. And that judgement is that Esio Trot is an enjoyable 90 minute glimpse at an unlikely but charming love story, that embodies some of the greatness of Dahl’s style even as it is forced to cut and change a bit to justify its existence. One cannot help but think that a more condensed story would have been better told, without resort to the conventions of modern love story-telling, but even with that, Esio Trot features fine performances from its leading two, some nice visual work, a great script and is a simply the perfect kind of film to enjoy on a day like New Years Day: nothing too taxing, with nice sentiment, and an unadulteratedly joyful happy ever after. Sure, the cracks start to show on a more critical inspection, but I doubt that will bother Dahl fans all that much. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of the BBC).