From Fear To Maternity
2016 UK Directed by Alice Lowe
Screening as part of the London Film Festival
October 16th 2016
My only real proper recollection of the phenomenon that is Alice Lowe, prior to this movie, is of seeing her in Ben Wheatley’s excellent film Sightseers (reviewed by me here) and I will always have the moment stuck in my mind from that where she screams “This is not my vaginaaaaaaa!” When reading up on her, though, it turns out I’ve actually seen her in quite a few things without actually realising it. I chose Prevenge as my fourth 2016 LFF movie purely on the strength of Lowe in Sightseers and, frankly, I’m really glad I did... I saw five films at the festival this year, most of them very good in one way or another and this particular one certainly is a magnificent and shiny little masterpiece, it has to be said.
The plot is straight out of the kinds of 1980s pulpy horror paperbacks I used to read as a teenager. You know the ones? Where a baby inside a mother’s womb starts controlling the parent and manipulating the outside world, usually resulting in much bloody mayhem. I’m not implying any of those trashy novels were a direct influence in this case, far from it, but this movie could slot nicely into this genre while, at the same time, being the absolutely most amazing and strikingly sensitive portrayal of that kind of idea we’ve yet had on screen.
Lowe plays the, mostly quite tragic, protagonist Ruth. She has lost her boyfriend in a 'terrible event' before finding out she was pregnant. As the baby grows in her belly, she is compelled by the unborn child to work her way through a kill list of seven people (which actually changes at one point, but I don’t want to post any spoilers on this one), murdering them one by one as the movie progresses but, of course, since it’s Alice Lowe, the film is also a comedy and the bleakness of the situations are shot through with a strong dose of extremely funny humour which will quite possibly have you laughing out loud, even through some of the goriest set pieces showcased here. There’s a set up, for example, where Ruth’s midwife, played by Jo Hartley, says something about what Ruth will be going through in her pregnancy which comes back to haunt her during a murder scene in an absolutely hilarious moment that had the audience roaring. Again... don't want to spoil that moment here.
The film opens strongly with a scene of a pet shop owner, played by Dan Renton Skinner, showing Ruth his ‘dangerous animals’ and right from the bat we notice that the majority of the men in the movie are portrayed in a funny but extremely unsympathetic light... which works really well to help keep the audience sensitive to Ruth’s plight, to a certain extent. What with Skinner's witty but slimy innuendo, for example, or Tom Davis’ performance as the appallingly ‘orrible DJ Dan, you can’t help but side with Ruth in certain situations. Not that this film is sexist in that way. The wonderful Kate Dickie is one of a couple of women who turn up on the kill list although, it has to be said, the girls certainly don’t seem as sleazy as some of the men in this movie.
All the performances in this movie, in fact, are pretty much amazing and... as good as everyone is, I do have to still shout out Lowe in this, not least because she’s directed and starred in this, from her own script, while heavily pregnant. I mean, c’mon, that’s a feat in itself but to also turn in some of the finest acting in one of the absolute best revenge films going takes some talent. Lowe has a gift for melancholy and she expresses it amazingly well throughout the film but... she can also express a sudden burst of joy and when you see the quick contrast between the two states, as you will in the closing scene of this movie, again for reasons I can’t divulge, the audience will get an emotional rush from it, I’m sure... at least, I did.
The set up for the revenge in the film is held back and not overtly spelled out at the start of the movie. This is another of the film’s strengths because, as the story progresses, the audience can begin to piece together the truth about what has happened to Ruth’s ex-boyfriend and the events surrounding his death as the director slowly drip feeds us the necessary information as the central protagonist/antagonist works her way through her shopping list of revenge killings. It’s a smart way of doing this, actually, and you can’t fault the writing here because, what might have just ended up as a catalogue of killings, one after the other... for that’s basically what the structure is here, is lifted by the mystery of the motivation for Ruth’s actions and... well all I can say is you certainly aren’t going to get bored by this one.
Another interesting facet to Ruth’s character and the actions which her baby, whose voice we hear in Ruth’s head all the way through, compel her to take is that of her compassion for other human beings. Before she takes another person’s life she, in almost but not quite all situations, talks to the characters before they realise her intention... as she gauges if they really deserve the gory retribution she is about to serve up. We get a real feeling throughout the movie, and this is also reiterated in the words of Ruth’s midwife, that the baby is the one in control the whole time and it’s not always Ruth’s decision to get the job done, so to speak. This gives her a much more 'human' feel and is another layer which wraps us up in her experience and allows a certain empathy with a character who is, after all, a serial killer.
The end of the film is pretty cool and it leans a lot on the editing and rhythm established earlier in the movie. There's a scene where Ruth (and presumably her unborn child... nothing like a womb with a view) is watching a silent movie actress on television. I think it might be Theda Bara* but I'm not 100% on that. Anyway, the attitude and performance of this actress kinda captivates and then informs the sensibilities and confidence of Ruth, which is made clear through the associations made in the editing of that sequence and echoes of this throughout the movie. In the second to last scene in the film, Ruth is forced to ponder that there might be a different catalyst for her killing spree than she, and the audience watching, had at first realised. This is made beautifully clear in the last scene in the movie where the last two edits confirm these suspicions while at the same time celebrating them in a wonderful moment which, I suspect, may divide some audience members.
And that's all I've got for you on this one. Prevenge is, as I said before, a mini masterpiece of a movie and it's definitely a hard recommend from me. If you like revenge movies in general then I certainly think you'll like it. If you like them laugh out loud funny and, relatively, bloody then... so much the better. What I can definitely say without reservation is that it's a well written, artfully crafted and technically brilliant example of modern British cinema at its best. Seriously... don't miss this one.
* No, I was dead wrong on that account. I asked Alice about this sequence on Twitter and here is her reply... "It was an excerpt from Crime Without Passion 1934. The Furies represented by uncredited actresses. thanks for the great review! xx"
2016 London Film Festival @ NUTS4R2
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