Based on an original screenplay written by its star performer Jonnie Hurn, Do Elephants Pray? (2010) is something of a low-key British indie oddity from director Paul Hills. Any film in which its central character literally hugs trees could well extricate groans from a modern audience. Fortunately, this part rom-com, part treatise on embracing nature manages to successfully conquer (to an extent) a difficult balancing act. Its message of eschewing materialism is placed alongside surreal comedy, with supporting characters that are either grotesque or delightfully odd-ball, yet are never less than entertaining.
Callum (Hurn) works in a London advertising agency bursting with fairly inept and ghastly colleagues. The daily grind involves attempting to sell a cranberry alcopop to men, whilst he grasps for some form of spirituality at a weekly Tai Chi class. One day, like a burst of colour in his otherwise pallor-filled world, the vivacious Malika (Julie Dray) comes twirling into his life. She urges upon him an altogether hippy-dippy philosophy and the two of them head off to a ‘Lake of No Return’ in France. Whilst trying to crack the new ad campaign, Callum also ends up on a journey that will change his life forever.
With its Earth-mother theme running front and centre, Do Elephants Pray? could have easily descended into rather cloying territory. Malika comes across as a surface-deep Gallic fantasy of spirituality, spontaneity and joie de vivre, whilst Dray’s portrayal is a completely straight one. Luckily, when things feel as though they may begin to grate, Callum is always on hand to produce a withering retort to keep the audience onside. Although he is enchanted by his enigmatic new partner and her world view, he retains enough cynicism to remain funny throughout and never loses sight of those cranberries.
As we struggle to comprehend whether exactly Malika is real or not, her apparently two-dimensional character and her obstinate naivety take on a more interesting quality whilst dark undertones about mental instability and suicide bubble beneath the surface. This is compounded by the majority of other characters in the film providing less than conventional humour. From the horrid colleagues at the ad agency – in particular, Callum’s challenger Marrlen (Marc Warren) – to the bizarre French soldier who stops for a chat in the woods, they keep the film feeling fresh.
Although the spiritual meaning does win out in the end, it does not do so at the expense of the funnier, trippier, darker side of proceedings and the performances from the two leads are charming enough to keep the audience committed. All in all, Hills’ Do Elephants Pray? is a pleasantly weird comedic journey of self discovery and alternative strategies for advertising inspiration.