“There are a number of elements that make Prevenge an exceptional piece of work. First and foremost is the characterisation of Ruth (Alice Lowe). She is not a woman without conscience. On the contrary, she is, at times, steeped in guilt and regret. She is genuinely perturbed by what she firmly believes to be the problematic behaviour of the baby – but is motivated to follow its wishes, because it has lost its father before ever having a chance to meet him. She is specifically moved by the deaths of most of these people – although she is entirely responsible – to the point where she leans in for a kiss with each one before leaving them.
But, it is the way in which she interacts with her midwife (Jo Hartley) that reveals the multiple layers of storytelling at work here. As her midwife gradually comes to the realisation that Ruth’s behaviour is somewhat concerning – particularly in light of her recent bereavement – she begins to draw detail from her during their consultations. Here, and during the murders, Ruth experiences imagined flashbacks to the bloody death of her husband – lying smashed on the cold, wet rocks. At first, these flashbacks are her motivation – they spur her on in her murderous rampage – but as the film progresses, they become increasingly tangible.
This is an extreme, but effective, depiction of obsessive thinking, and the manifestation of mental illness that can sometimes be associated specifically with pregnant women, and also with people who have suffered a severe emotional trauma. The sudden, overwhelming hormonal changes that a woman experiences during pregnancy can lead to a number of shifts in thinking and the perception of reality. In addition, when a person gets caught in an obsessive thought pattern, they can often feel compelled to carry out a specific action in order to quiet those thoughts, and often to stave off some imagined disaster – the likelihood of which they are utterly convinced. It is never really clear what Ruth believes this worst case scenario to be, until she gives birth to her baby and expresses surprise at her ‘normality’. After listening to the foetus’s bloodlust for several months, she was clearly, genuinely, expecting it to be some kind of demon.
In using this situation, writer-director Alice Lowe is able to fully convey the most terrifying aspect of pregnancy – and she writes it into a specific scene with the midwife. It is the fact that she is no longer ‘in control’. The baby is in control. In the film, this takes the form of a kind of psychosis, induced by this heady combination of shock, grief, and pregnancy hormones. But, the midwife is able to relate it to the very real issues that arise in pregnancy – when the body seems to do its own thing to support the life of the baby; the senses are heightened, so everything smells and tastes different because of the baby; hormones flood the brain, so thoughts and feelings are different because of the baby. Ruth describes feeling like a vehicle, which the baby is driving – and this is the most accurate explanation of this sensation possible.
But, as with everything in this film, there is another layer to that conversation and that feeling on the part of Ruth. It speaks very loudly and clearly to the issue of women and reproductive rights…”