At the East End Film Festival, I caught debut feature Hippopotamus from Edward Palmer, a young filmmaker who challenged himself with a ‘twist on a classic love story’. Ruby (Ingvild Deila) has been kidnapped by Tom (Stuart Mortimer) who wastes no time in explaining that she has lost her memory and he has severed her ligaments to keep her in a bare, underground room until she falls in love with him. As the film continues, it hands out more clues as to who Ruby is and why she has been chosen as a prisoner.
Firstly, I have to say congratulations to the director for a full length feature which, as I understand, was filmed over three years. At the Q&A after the screening, Palmer mentioned he worked backwards, taking his inspiration from the aesthetic of an underground prison. The look of the room is sterile and cold, as one would expect from a human vault, and there’s a nice little trick with a sideways dolly that turns into a smart montage. The choice to focus on only two characters and their relationship is a great decision due to the environment, but it also proves to be risky as it means more pressure on the characters to connect convincingly. When more information is revealed, a faster pace is introduced; Ruby’s lack of memory means her reactions to her captor can only be fear, but when he appears to care for her, her feelings towards him become muddied which is the primary source of dramatic momentum.
However, I had a few issues with the script. On a micro level, the dialogue was uncomfortable and stilted - perhaps made worse by the use of ADR in the prison room that detaches characters from their words - but even moments where the two characters are seemingly comfortable with each other is awkward; they have dinner where the words “I AM ORGASMIC” are uttered and it’s a little difficult to gauge how old these characters are, although given Tom’s actions throughout the film perhaps it isn’t a stretch to think he’s not incredibly mature. On a larger and more important scale, at risk of spoiling the film for all, I found a huge issue with Ruby’s rape and Tom’s subsequent desire to “fix” her, a story told in a flashback that presents Tom in some kind of saviour’s light. That would be fine, as we could chalk it up to an unreliable narrator, except Ruby then proceeds to have intercourse with him to… Distract him? Wear him out? Something that is a little disturbing and never really explained. Only then, in the bask of morning light, does she decide to deal her revenge on him. This back and forth is so confusing to watch, especially as it's in the final throes of the film, and we are not really given any more insight to Ruby’s personality as a result.
Overall this is a muddled story that doesn’t seem to know where it wants to head, or indeed why. Again, I commend the director on his debut, but unfortunately I think the film falls short of the questions it set out to ask.
- Xiao Tang