You don’t have to look very far to find all the ‘top tips’ for motherhood. Every bookstore has a self-help section, and you’ll find plenty of advice, of varying degrees of usefulness, from every barista and yoga teacher in the neighbourhood. There’s one old adage, though, that often gets parroted from the mouths of would-be experts with no apparent irony: “baby knows best”. It’s a saying tossed around by vacuous leaflets with regularity, despite the fact that on the surface, it appears to be relatively meaningless. Prevenge is not a film to take such matters lightly. It gleefully takes on every wishy-washy portrait of motherhood and pregnancy, and rips their bleeding hearts out — because of course, baby really does know best.
Prevenge — the title a catchy conjunction of ‘pregnant’ and ‘revenge’ — is written and directed by Alice Lowe (the writer/star of Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers), who also takes on the film’s leading role: Ruth, eight-months-pregnant and coping on her own, with no partner or friends in sight. Except Ruth isn’t really alone: her every action is guided by the disembodied voice of her yet-unborn child, whose appetite is whet for bloodshed. This is, obviously, an exciting premise, though its execution leaves a lot to be desired.
In particular where Prevenge falls short is in one of its titular elements: ‘revenge’. Though the pre-death dialogue between Ruth and her victims is always witty, the motive for some of the murders is either obtuse or wholly unknown. This leaves a vacuum at the film’s emotional core, as only half the killings are contributing to meaningful development of the plot or characters. As a result, Prevenge puts viewers at a distance; you’re unable to perceive any consistency within the film’s internal machinations.
Despite the confusion throughout, what holds the film together is an excellent deadpan performance from Alice Lowe — whose on-screen pregnancy was not movie magic. Her performance ranges from sardonic to intense, yet the film around her lacks the same elasticity. Indeed, in an effort to remain a marketable ‘comedy’, the film often gets cold feet during scenes which would normally require real emotion — that the interruptions are sarcastic quips creates an unfortunate paradox. When Prevenge chooses to be sincere, it is at its most powerful, as demonstrated in the exchanges between Ruth and her midwife (Jo Hartley), whose mixture of empathy and concern for Ruth is quite touching. At one point, Ruth leans in, tears in her eyes, and insists with a piercing honesty that she “would swap her [the baby] to have him [her partner] back”. That these exchanges are so frequently downplayed is a shame, but it is in keeping with how the film skims across some complex subject matter — such as the role of the single mother, fears of childbirth — which is worthy of more screen time.
If Prevenge fully committed to the absurdity of its premise and did away with overt attempts at serious commentary on women and motherhood, then one could forgive moments of sheer ridiculousness: a baby’s voice that sounds more like one of Alvin and the Chipmunks, for instance. Or if it chose to allow moments of poignancy to filter through without compromise, it could have been very affecting, providing filmgoers with a unique reflection on the stresses of motherhood, particularly those that have often been treated as too taboo to discuss openly. Lost between these polarities, Prevenge veers uncertainly throughout, neither funny nor dark enough to sustain interest.