Last week, Alice Lowe’s Prevenge made a big splash at the London Film Festival, as well wowing audiences during screenings in Spain. Next week, it comes to Manchester, and there will be further screenings before general release in the New Year.
Featuring a cast primarily made up of TVO regulars, and with Alice writing and directing as well as leading that incredible cast, we were naturally very keen to see it. Our editor, Paul Holmes, shares his thoughts below…
There’s a moment during Prevenge, the directorial feature length debut from Alice Lowe, in which she lies in a tepid bath, staring at her pregnancy bump, and talks to her unborn baby. “I think I’m changing,” she says, “into something else. It’s because of you.” If there’s a truer line spoken in cinema, I’d like to hear it. Because Prevenge marks Alice’s transformation from cult comedy actress and writer to internationally renowned filmmaker in her own right.
As writer, director, and leading actress – no, wait, we’ll say it… star – Lowe’s inimitable presence is felt across every aspect of this film. Even during the rare moments when her character is not on screen, her blackly comic mindset oozes across it; her penchant for the grisly fused with the slightly crude yet impeccably witty; her naturalistic dialogue that feels ad-libbed and genuine but is, on the whole, all part of the magical, deliciously scripted illusion. Twelve years after she first lit up our screens in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and a full fifteen years after her TV debut as actor and writer (in little seen Comedy Labs pilot Orcadia), Alice Lowe has finally been allowed full creative freedom on her own project, and the result is the first of no doubt many masterpieces to come.
Having followed her career ever since those early days, it’s hard to not only remain objective about Alice’s work, but also to appear that way to everyone else. Indeed, The Velvet Onion team affectionately dub Lowe our ‘Fairy Godmother’, because she was instrumental in inspiring the site into existence, and in giving us support before we’d even launched. My personal connection to Alice, and all she has done for me over the years I’ve known her, potentially makes it difficult to convince people the genuine enthusiasm is not simply biased hyperbole.
Yet if our stance as a positive force in alternative comedy potentially puts our objectivity into the spotlight, may I be the first to say that not everything our regulars do is a slice of fried gold, and Alice has her share of projects on her resume that, on a personal level, have disappointed me. And, in all fairness, knowing Alice, there are some of those projects which have disappointed her, too. These instances are admittedly few and far between, but they exist, and while it’s been our duty to inform our readers of their existence, there’s no rule to say we have to enthuse about them. From the moment we launched in early 2010, we have always striven to find a positive spin, but as long as we remain ad-free and independent, we’ll still only really enthuse about the things we truly love, even when we’re trying to find the good points in the things we don’t.
Prevenge is a film we can enthuse about. This is a piece of work that is, quite rightly, being hailed as part of a new wave of exciting filmmaking. A startling debut from an incredibly talented individual who has been lauded by an underground audience (that’s you lot) for over a decade, and is now finally stepping into the limelight, and hopefully the kudos and project offers that should have come her way after Sightseers made a superstar out of its incredible director.
To explain the plot of Prevenge in any great detail would be doing it a disservice – a lot of film’s quirkiest moments are best left to be discovered for yourself. But what can be said is this: Alice plays Ruth, a downtrodden mum-to-be who lost her partner on the very day she found out she was pregnant, and now believes that their unborn child is forcing her to kill those responsible, alongside murdering the occasional person who gets in the way of their grand master-plan.
Along her journey, Ruth meets a sleazy pet shop owner (Dan Skinner), a selfish 70s-obsessed DJ (Tom Davis), a feeble old dear (a scene stealing performance from How Not to Live Your Life’s Leila Hoffman), a fitness fanatic (Gemma Whelan), a climbing instructor (Kayvan Novak), an overworked businesswoman (Game of Thrones star Kate Dickie) and two friendly flatmates (Mike Wozniak and Tom Meeten), alongside a midwife (This is England’s Jo Hartley) who is trying to make sense of Ruth’s troubled world.
Most of them never really get to see the real Ruth, as each is presented with an alternate identity that shields Ruth’s murderous urges until they bubble to the surface with often fatal consequences. And yet, for all her rage and cold-blooded killing, Ruth’s situation is framed sympathetically, and those on her hit-list are, on the whole, allowed to make their own mistakes that lead to their downfall. Not only that, but on the rare occasions when an innocent victim is drawn into the crossfire, Lowe plays Ruth’s tortured realisation that her actions are destroying her – and anyone she comes into contact with – impeccably.
There are no doubt countless analytical studies waiting to be written about the film’s stance on feminism, motherhood, and both pre and post-natal depression. Frankly, they’re not for me to have any viable position on, but there’s incredible depth to what could have, in essence, been a straightforward slasher horror comedy. Lowe has pushed to investigate what makes Ruth tick, and never allows her audience to settle in for an easy ride. Ruth makes truly terrible decisions, and the viewer is never entirely sure if the reasons she chooses this path are intended to be caused by mere fanatical grief or something unnatural and wickedly fantastical.
Thematically, in that sense, this is a continuation of themes Lowe has tackled before as a writer, long before Sightseers, with shorts like Stiffy and Out of Water. What Prevenge does so well, is take everything Alice has learned across her work as a performer, combines it with her blackly comic writing style, and the work she has done with Ben Wheatley and in particular Jacqueline Wright (an unsung hero if ever there was one), and allowed her to make a near impeccable debut as a filmmaker in her own right.
A great deal of care has gone into both the visual and audio aesthetics of the film, which adds to the brooding sense of the foreboding, and the increasing sense that the world is closing in on Ruth bit by bit. The claustrophobia only lets up from boxy nightclubs, bland hotel rooms and drab NHS consulting rooms, when Ruth visits two places she could approach potential happiness. The first is an apartment shared by one of her potential victims, and while she is portraying a would-be flatmate in an act of cunning deception, her guard drops due to a friendly face who, in other circumstances, may have been the right person to guide Ruth from the darkness. The second is, wonderfully, the site of her partner’s fatal accident – as if just being at that point is enough to reconnect them spiritually. And as the film progresses, it becomes apparent that much like Sightseers, Roots and maybe even Birdhandler before them, within nature is where Alice’s alter-ego can finally feel free.
Factoring in that Alice was genuinely seven to eight months pregnant whilst shooting the vast majority of the film, and that the limited budget meant a lot of fast-paced filming, and it’s even more amazing the film looks, sounds and feels as good as it does, let alone hits the target as both a comedy and a narrative. By concentrating on getting the technical difficulties of ‘the kills’ out of the way early on each day of the shoot, Alice and her cast of frequent collaborators – most of whom are fellow TVO regulars – were able to hone the words on the page into a series of naturalistic and incredibly funny two-handers. It almost goes without saying that each cast member delivers a solid performance, from Dan Skinner’s lecherous mastery of one-liner filth, through to Gemma Whelan’s polite but dangerous fitness fanatic. In lesser hands, characters like these, particularly Tom Davis’ oderous DJ Dan, could fall flat, and it is a testament to everyone involved that there’s not a duff moment between them.
If there’s one tiny negative point to make, it’s that the nature of the film’s ‘hit-list’ can make it feel slightly formulaic, but that’s something that can be levied at every film that involves such a plot device, and to her great credit, Lowe works around it with twists and turns at every opportunity.
And so, back to that tepid bath. In the middle of her killing spree, Ruth talks to her unborn baby, and tells her she’s changing into something else. And Alice, in the middle of her well established career, has done just that. She’s now a mother for the first time, and she’s now a fully-fledged filmmaker, with a stone cold classic under her belt already. After all these years, Team TVO can’t wait for you all to see it, but while we celebrate this genuinely stunning piece of work, a selfish part of me can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.