As premises go, Hippopotamus is deceivingly simple: a woman wakes up captive, broken knees, in a blank room, and her captor tells her she will only be free when she falls in love with him. Edward A. Palmer’s directorial debut was shot under a meagre £5,000 budget, and based on his previous 2015 short with the same name and actors.
Initially appearing as some kind of extreme Stockholm syndrome genre, Hippopotamus tries to break free from expectations and surprise the audience with twists and turns, a somewhat disappointing final revelation and a horrifying ending. Ruby (Ingvild Deila) is not sure if she can trust her captor, Thomas (after all, he is the villain, right?), but soon it becomes apparent that there’s more to him and their previous relation than is visible from the surface – just like an hippopotamus. Torn between her amnesia and how hard it is to establish any facts as absolute truths, Ruby needs to decide, in the end, if she goes with her heart or her instincts.
Shot almost in its entirety inside the same room, Hippopotamus tries to make up for it with (sometimes excessive) stylisation, using and abusing unusual camera angles, particularly in the first act. More than an indie, this film gives a student film vibe at points, which is reinforced by a not so good of a script and, of course, the reduced budget constraints. Several influences are immediately obvious – Oldboy, Saw, Room, Memento, and the odd Kubrick wink -, which, allied to an acting that gets very hammy in certain scenes (the dialogue certainly does not help), makes Hippopotamus not exactly sure of its tone, or where it wants to go. Some will also take fault with the stereotypical trope that triggered Ruby’s amnesia, and there are plot holes and lost threads a-plenty.
Still, as a faulty directorial debut, Hippopotamus can be at points hypnotising. Palmer manages to build tension and some mystery, hold our attention (the scenes where Ruby is alone in her room are very well done), and does tease his directing potential over the third act, when we are given the answer to our questions (though by someone, we learned, may be an unreliable narrator) and are, at last, outside the little room. Technically, the film is also impeccable, an astonishing feat considering the incredibly low budget, and something that definitely required a good degree of creativity and resourcefulness. It’s not perfect, but its ambition and short duration (little over 70min) makes it bearable, and not completely unenjoyable.
Hippopotamus will be playing at the East End Film Festival. For more information and tickets, please check http://www.eastendfilmfestival.com